It may have escaped the notice of all but a grab-bag of News online commenters, but two weeks ago The Huffington Post published an article by Greg Lukanioff titled “The 12 Worst Colleges For Free Speech.” Mr. Lukanioff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, handed Yale the fifth spot on the list for a number of reasons: its censoring the notorious Muhammad cartoons in a Yale University Press book on the subject; Dean Mary Miller’s nixing the “sissies” reference from Game shirts in 2009; and more generally its being “a repeat offender against freedom of expression in recent years.”
I wouldn’t have given the story much more than a sad shake of the head if I hadn’t come across a report on the Muslim Student Union at the University of California, Irvine. For years, the organization contented itself with hanging bloody Israeli flags around campus and calling Israel “The Fourth Reich” – an atmosphere that led to several federal investigations, but no charges. But last February, when Israeli ambassador Michael B. Oren came to speak on campus, the MSU allegedly organized a group of students to shout protests throughout the speech. Oren continued with his talk, but 11 students were arrested and the MSU was suspended for the fall quarter. Just last week the Orange County district attorney filed misdemeanor criminal charges against the students. Numerous faculty members and the local chapter of the ACLU banded together to protest the charges, but the DA’s office remained steadfast – even going so far as to ask critics to substitute the KKK for the MSU and Martin Luther King, Jr. for Mr. Oren before passing judgment.
All this emotional blackmail – by the MSU as well as the Orange County DA – has made me consider the power of words, especially in an environment as wordy as Yale. Our generation of students has a more schizophrenic relationship with words than any before us. Words are simultaneously emblems of sacral importance and trivial clumps of characters — how many make 140? The glut of words at Yale prevents us from a proper sorting and leads us to a general verbal despair. What is damnyouautocorrect.com but a fantasy of a world in which all innuendo and wordplay can be chalked up to technical malfunction? We are taught to worship the vocabulary of academia but also to trivialize that of social situations and online networking. On the other hand, we must simultaneously understand the legal implications of a single “no” in a sexual setting, and the license to spill thousands of words in vicious academic disagreement, without taking any offense. The confusion of these boundaries — the inability to separate situations of verbal importance from those of verbal inconsequence — is one of the factors behind incidents like last semester’s DKE chanting.
But if we seek to improve our Lukanioff rating — which, as a world-class liberal arts university, we should — we must examine the cost. We all want a culture of open, vigorous debate; very few of us (I hope) want “Fourth Reich” posters. We want discussion, not lawsuits; we want satire, not harassment; we want silly, spirited T-shirts, not bloody flags.
Legally, of course, this is a cake we cannot both have and eat. We must be prepared, in a pinch, to be a university of Voltaires (though, in an eternal testament to the power of words over their presumed speakers, that writer’s famous defense of free speech was in fact penned by a biographer in 1906.) The answer here is not legal but rather cultural. It lies in reinstating the power of words across all contexts, from Facebook statuses to history essays. It lies in a fearless approach to free speech and a fearless approach to communal awareness and inclusion — a dual responsibility of resisting censorship and resisting hate. Our university education should train us to make these vital distinctions.
My high school had a single, fundamental law: “Don’t be mean, and don’t be stupid.” In a world sometimes bent on both, we should rededicate ourselves to a relationship with words that are both provocative and kind, both generous and wise.
Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.