Yale’s commitment to free speech is officially on life support.
This past Thursday, President Levin published the Marshall Committee Report on campus sexual climate. Among other things, the committee recommends banning Sex Week from using classrooms — in effect barring its activities this spring. The committee also claims to uphold “Yale’s enduring commitment to free expression,” despite its recommendation regarding Sex Week.
Responding to the report, Levin endorsed the ban on Sex Week, with the caveat that the student-led group can “propose a program for next semester that might warrant continuation of this event on campus.” But have no fear: “We have no intention of suppressing the students’ rights to free expression.”
Levin and the Marshall Committee got it wrong — Sex Week deserves space on campus this spring, just like every other group, regardless of how offensive it might be. In order to reach this conclusion, we need to address two questions: Are rooms necessary for free speech on a college campus? If yes, does Sex Week fall outside the bounds of protected expression?
An important disclaimer: I do not support Sex Week. The event is distasteful, with little redeeming value. But so is a lot of speech that happens at Yale. Our community does not censor someone purely for being tawdry or offensive.
Now to the first question posed: Does denying students a room restrict their speech? The answer: Yes. Rooms have become a de facto right to student groups on campus. They are the physical locations that make up our marketplace of ideas, tantamount to the Speaker’s Corner in London. Administrators ought not deny specific students resources automatically entitled to the general population without a compelling reason.
Having established the importance of classrooms to campus speech, should Yale ban Sex Week from classrooms? When can we limit free speech?
In Section H of the Marshall Report, the authors write that just because speech is “offensive … even hateful,” it does not mean Yale can ban it. I could not agree more. If we ban offensive speech, we face unsettling questions: Who decides what speech is acceptably offensive and what is over the line? Me? Dean Gentry? Any offended student?
Incidentally, this conception of free speech follows in an illustrious Yale tradition, starting with the 1975 Woodward Report, which came to an identical conclusion. We do not censor speech because we do not trust censors. Our community tolerates offensive expression up until that speech directly incites physical violence — we have not yet seen that at Yale.
To justify banning Sex Week, the Marshall Committee must show that the event is more than merely offensive. It does not. The closest the report comes is arguing that Sex Week “has lost the focus of its stated intention” and thus merits a ban.
This new standard amounts to administrators deciding my purpose for speaking and allowing me to speak only if my words meet that purpose. Nowhere in the rest of the report does the committee reach a similar standard.
Levin’s response to the report adopts a different reason for banning Sex Week, though his is equally incorrect. He claims the organizers of Sex Week benefit from corporate sponsorship and enjoy “private inurement” (read: kickbacks from condom makers). Regardless of whether he is correct on his facts — I don’t know if Sex Week coordinators are paid by the porn industry — a few examples quickly show that his particular logic is untenable.
Bain Capital sponsors the Women’s Leadership Initiative — should WLI now be denied space because it receives outside funding? What about students working in public schools who earn stipends from Dwight Hall — are their thoughts about school reform not protected speech because of their salaries? President Levin’s illogic speaks for itself.
We thus find ourselves at a simple trinity of conclusions: One, classrooms are necessary for speech. Two, denying Sex Week those spaces requires proving its speech more than merely offensive. Three, neither the Marshall Report nor the president successfully tell us why Sex Week merits censorship.
President Levin: Give Sex Week back its space, distasteful though the event might be.
Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.