“I want to end with something to the Muslim Students Association. Why don’t you spend all the energy that you’ve devoted toward me to exposing…the men and women who poison the minds of children as impressionable teachers. Don’t you think you should go after them instead of me?”
On the evening of September 15, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, clad in a black leather jacket, grey slacks and cork wedge heels, stood in front of more than 300 lecture attendants, occasionally pushing her brown-frame glasses to the top of her head.
Delivered in her soft, childlike voice, the words almost sounded like a lullaby. Almost.
Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born activist and writer whose repertoire of issues spans feminism, female genital mutilation, atheism and Islam, stood behind the podium on the stage of SSS 114. The event was titled “Clash of Civilizations: Islam and the West,” but Hirsi Ali was intent on addressing more than just religion.
Tonight, she said, is about free speech. Tonight is about hearing opinions we don’t want to hear. Tonight is about the central purpose of a university.
The audience members—a significant number of whom were alumni whose 30th, 40th, perhaps even 50th reunions had already passed—responded with a booming round of applause. They—especially the members of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program, which was hosting the event—may not have agreed with Hirsi Ali on abolishing state funding of religious schools, legalizing drugs or increasing access to abortion. But on this, they stood firmly behind her.
Five days before, members of the Yale community had opened their inboxes to a letter from the MSA expressing wariness about this very talk.
“Our concern is that Ms. Hirsi Ali is being invited to speak as an authority on Islam despite the fact that she does not hold the credentials to do so,” the email read. “[W]e are hopeful that the discussion is constructive and that Ms. Hirsi Ali speaks only to her personal experiences and professional expertise.”
But on this evening there stood Hirsi Ali, speaking on not just her personal experience, but also Islam’s role on the world stage.
Less than a month before, President Peter Salovey had stood behind a similar podium in a similarly-adorned lecture hall to deliver his freshman address. He made clear where he and his administration stood on the issue of free speech.
Much of his speech had been written 40 years before, in the wake of free speech incidents involving segregationist George Wallace, former commander of the US Armed Forces in Vietnam William Westmoreland, and eugenics proponent William Shockley.
“‘The history of intellectual growth and discovery,” he said, quoting directly from the Woodward Report, “clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable and challenge the unchallengeable.”
His blue robes draped by his sides, his mustache absent, and his eyes bespectacled, he signaled his vision for speech and expression in the years to come.
“I recognize that all of us here…might also like to live in a campus community where nothing provocative and hurtful is ever said to anyone. And that is the part that I cannot—and should not—promise you. For if we are not willing to be shocked, then we may not be allowing ourselves to be open to life-changing ideas—ideas that rock our worlds.”
* * *
In May of 1974, a team of distinguished professors and scholars, headed by the preeminent American historian C. Vann Woodward, convened to craft a document that would articulate the University’s policies on free expression.
The resulting 51-page Woodward Report was brought to President Brewster’s desk on December 23 of that year. The University released it in January 1975, under the title, “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale.”
The report was clear. Yale would staunchly defend free speech on campus—something it arguably hadn’t done so well twelve years before.
In 1963, the Yale Political Union invited George Wallace, of block-the-schoolhouse-doorway segregationist fame, to speak. Then Mayor of New Haven Richard Lee wasn’t happy. His eyes set on a fifth term as mayor of a predominantly African-American city, he was adamant against Wallace setting foot in New Haven.
“The Mayor of New Haven…told Brewster that he feared there would be terrible riots [if he did come],” Sam Chauncey, who served as special assistant to President Brewster throughout his 14-year tenure, said. But, Chauncey continued, “I don’t believe there would have been terrible riots.”
Brewster bent, and the YPU revoked the invitation.
“It was a question of a naïve administrator under great pressure from the Mayor of New Haven, and maybe others,” Chauncey said.
Brewster had fallen into his position by default; the Yale charter calls for the Provost to become acting President if the President dies in office. He had only spent a year in the Provost’s office before President Whitney Griswold’s death, and was acutely aware of how his decisions might impact his own future—he was the leading candidate to become President of the University.
But, Chauncey said, Brewster realized he had made a mistake after the fact, and he was willing to admit it.
The Wallace incident was the first free speech incident Brewster confronted as President, but it was later, more heated incidents that would lead to the creation of the Woodward Report.
According to Nathaniel Zelinsky ’13, who won the Kaplan Prize for his senior essay focusing on free speech and co-education in the Brewster years, the President’s first disruption came not from an outside speaker, but from within the University.
In 1969, Yale fired a black dining hall worker for being, according to a News article on November 4, 1969, “uncooperative” with students, almost all of whom were white. In response, sixty students, affiliated with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), occupied what is now the L-Dub basement post office, and what was then the dining hall manager’s office, demanding that the dining hall worker be brought back.
Administrators had little precedent for this type of situation; Chauncey would later note, “we were kind of winging it.”
He and Provost Charles Taylor (Brewster was away on vacation) ended up suspending forty-seven students who refused to leave.
* * *
In 1972, then Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland, who had led the US armed forces throughout the peak years of the Vietnam War, including during the Tet Offensive, was invited by the YPU to speak.
Westmoreland’s visit soon became more than an issue of free speech.
“His staff was very concerned about his life. Not free speech, but whether he might be killed,” said Chauncey, who was in charge of securing the event in his role as special assistant to the President.
Prior to the event, the administration, worried that some might go off the rails, reached an agreement with students. Protesters could stand with placards at the back of the Law School auditorium, where the event was to be held, but they could not speak.
The administration had worked out other details, too.
“I had arranged for a very large number of plain-clothed policemen to be in the room, in case there was a real coup,” Chauncey recalled. “In case someone pulled out a gun to shoot him.”
Asked if he actually believed someone might attempt to assassinate Westmoreland, Chauncey delivered a history lesson.
“This was a period in American history when there were the Weathermen bombings,” he said, referring to the Weather Underground Organization, a radical left group that formed from Students for a Democratic Society, and delivered a slew of bombings, mostly to government buildings, from the early to mid-70s.
The administration made sure that, if anything were to happen, Westmoreland could escape as quickly as possible—they had chosen the Law School auditorium for its layout.
“You could get from the podium to the [off-stage] door in two seconds, and be out of the room. And behind that door were more police officers ready to open it and bring him out,” Chauncey said.
But at the last moment, right before Westmoreland was to make his way from dinner at Mory’s with the YPU Party chairmen to the auditorium to deliver his speech, either he or his security team balked. To this day, Chauncey doesn’t know what led to the last-minute 180 degree shift. He just knows that a lieutenant approached him as he waited in the YLS auditorium to inform him that General Westmoreland would no longer be speaking. He was afraid for his life.
* * *
I think back to Hirsi Ali. Police officers adorned SSS 114, posted at every entrance. But no bags were searched, no attendants escorted out, and although the side doors stayed tightly sealed until the moment she walked on stage, it seemed more of a toying with suspense than a true security concern. And no one, inside or out, went as far as to protest.
I ask Chauncey why this is.
He pauses. I listen to silence on the other end of the line.
“I think students today are incapable of outrage,” he says. Incapable of outrage, but not apathetic, he specifies.
“They are deeply concerned about social issues, but I don’t think they can act on their concern,” he says. “They’re paralyzed,” either because they are worried about not getting a job with a black mark on their record, or because they believe they aren’t informed enough to insert themselves into the dialogue.
While Chauncey seems more worried about a lack of outrage with social and policy issues, Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History, who has also spoken at several Buckley events, worries about a lack of concern for upholding free speech principles themselves.
“In the earlier time,” he says, “there was a division of opinion among the students, but there was a pretty strong sense of the opinion of [the importance of] freedom of speech.”
Today, Kagan thinks there are more student groups willing to suppress the speech they don’t like.
“And my feeling is that the great mass of students are prepared to accept that,” he says.
* * *
The tipping point came in 1974, just one year before the Woodward Report was released. The Conservative Party of the YPU asked William Shockley— co-inventor of the transistor radio, for which he won the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics, and a believer in eugenics—to speak in front of the Union
Unlike Westmoreland, Shockley made it into the building. But he was never able to speak. For over an hour, shouting students drowned out his words. Shockley walked out of SSS, defeated.
* * *
Placed side by side, the Shockley and Westmoreland events pose an important question: Is there a difference between those who simply espouse beliefs—Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for instance—and those who have participated in acts that some members of the community find reprehensible, like Westmoreland?
Shockley had made his pro-eugenics beliefs known to the world, but he wasn’t implementing any eugenics policies. Meanwhile, Westmoreland had served as Commander of the Armed Forces, making decisions that impacted the lives of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese civilians every day. Shockley was a speaker, but Westmoreland was a doer.
When members of the Rutgers and Smith communities made clear to former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde that they were unwelcome on their respective campuses, they were operating on the “doer” principle. Rice, they said, was responsible for the War in Iraq, and Lagarde for the “strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”
In November 2013, Brown University students invoked the same principle. New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who had implemented the city’s highly controversial stop-and-frisk policy, came to speak, but student protesters shut him down, standing up inside the lecture hall and heckling him.
Signs outside the event read, “Stop police brutality,” “Brown is complicit,” and “Ray(cist) Kelly.”
I asked Salovey: for the purposes of honoring free speech on campus, should we differentiate between the Shockleys and the Westmorelands, the speakers and the doers?
Not in University policy, he said. To Salovey, the distinction isn’t meaningful enough to merit different administrative responses.
Asked how he would respond if Bashar al-Assad, responsible for the deaths of thousands of Syrians, were invited to campus, he demurred from the extreme example, but reinforced his position.
“Let’s say a group on campus wants to invite a mass murderer to speak,” he explained, sitting in his office on the first floor of Woolsey Hall. “I might question that group’s judgment. I might even question why they would like to dignify that person by giving them a platform. But if they invite that person, and they do it in a way that the event would be safe for all involved…it would be inappropriate for me to try to pressure the group to disinvite a speaker.”
According to William F. Buckley Program, Jr. President Rich Lizardo ’15 and the Program’s founder and executive director Lauren Noble ’11, pressuring another group to disinvite a speaker is exactly what the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) did.
“The MSA asked me if the Buckley Program would reconsider our invitation,” Lizardo said.
From the outset, Lizardo said, he made clear that revoking the invitation was a non-starter. The MSA then presented other options, he said: the first that Hirsi Ali be limited to speaking about personal experiences, and the second that other guests—who they deemed more qualified—be invited to speak alongside her.
To Lizardo, the second request was downright disrespectful.
“If the initial invitation is for a lecture [and not a debate], you have to stick with that,” he said.
Lizardo was also bothered by the very premise of their requests.
“It was somewhat uncalled for,” he said, “for another organization to be making demands of us.”
But MSA President Ahmad Aljobeh ’16 denies ever asking the Program to disinvite Hirsi Ali. As to asking the Buckley Program to invite other speakers, and limit Hirsi Ali’s comments to her personal experience, Aljobeh said, “The MSA is exercising our own freedom of speech.”
* * *
To many Yale students, the same is true of Reverend Bruce Shipman, former priest-in-charge of the Episcopal Church at Yale who made headlines with his response to an August 20 op-ed in The New York Times.
A month ago, Deborah E. Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, wrote a piece about rising anti-semitism in Europe. The crux of her opinion: People who worry we are on the “cusp of another Holocaust” are wrong. But people who aren’t worried at all about anti-semitism are also wrong.
“This is not another Holocaust, but it’s bad enough,” she concludes.
In response to the op-ed, Rev. Shipman, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, wrote a letter to the editor stating that there is a relationship between increased anti-semitism in Europe and Israel’s policies in Gaza. In what would become his most controversial point, he wrote, “the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israel’s patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question.”
Two weeks later, Shipman resigned from his post because, as he told the Yale Herald, his board simply wouldn’t stand behind him throughout the onslaught of criticism. (Ian Douglas, bishop of Connecticut and president of the board of governors for the Episcopal Church at Yale, counters that it had more to do with “institutional dynamics” within the Church.)
Feelings ran high on both sides. Some students said the comments justified anti-semitism. Others said they showed a complete inability to separate the policies of the Israeli government from the lives of millions of diasporic Jews.
But other students felt Shipman was simply speaking up for the plight of Palestinians, broaching a taboo that others have been too reticent to touch. They didn’t believe the letter condoned anti-semitism.
Two days after the Times letter, on August 28, Shipman followed up with another one, this time to the Yale Daily News.
“If I seemed to suggest in my letter that only Jews, who actively oppose present Israeli policies have a right to feel safe, that was not my intention nor is it my belief,” he wrote. “Personal safety and protection by the rule of law is a fundamental right. Nothing done in Israel or Palestine justified the disturbing rise in anti-semitism in Europe or elsewhere.”
Exactly a week after the second letter ran, Shipman resigned.
For Chauncey, the Shipman incident called up memories of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. At that time, Chauncey was leading the charge on co-education and increasing the number of minority students at Yale. Yale’s affiliated organizations—what Chauncey calls “parasitic organizations” because they wouldn’t exist if Yale did not—Mory’s, the Yale Club of New York City, and secret societies, refused to let women and African-Americans within their folds.
Chauncey literally laid down the law, recruiting Yale Law School faculty to sue Mory’s, which had thus far refused to even talk about admitting women. If these organizations wanted to maintain any affiliation with the University, they had to abide by its principles, he said. (After being threatened with losing its liquor license, Mory’s began admitting women in 1972, three years after the University had gone co-ed.)
He views the Shipman controversy as analogous.
“Here’s the Episcopal church, apparently letting a man go because he said something they didn’t like,” he said, emphasizing that, because of conflicting accounts, he doesn’t know the real reason why Shipman resigned. “From my point of view, there can be no distinction: If a person is part of Yale University, they have a right to free speech.”
In a follow-up conversation, he clarified. “I’m not saying that the Episcopal church shouldn’t fire a priest that says something that’s inconsistent with their values,” he said. “But if the organization’s values are inconsistent with Yale’s values, then there’s a question.”
To Deborah Lipstadt, the Emory professor who wrote the op-ed, free speech is a “smokescreen” in this case.
“[Shipman] is the representative of a major organization associated with one of the major universities in the US,” she said. “It’s not that he’s not allowed to say [what he said]; it’s that you take responsibility for it.”
She offered another example: if someone said that rape on college campuses simply wouldn’t happen if “‘those girls [that’s usually the language that’s used] didn’t wear those short skirts, or go to frat houses, or get drunk,’” or that Michael Brown wouldn’t have been murdered if “‘black people didn’t wear their pants around their ankles, and if they would just shape up and behave,’ we wouldn’t think twice about firing them.”
To her, along with focusing on whether a person had the right to say what they said, we can’t forget to ask ourselves: “Do you want someone ministering or counseling to students who makes these kinds of simplistic and glib comparisons?”
She tied her thoughts back to former Harvard President Larry Summers’ comments on women in the sciences. (In 2005, Summers suggested that the underrepresentation of women in the sciences could be due to a “different availability of aptitude at the high end.” After a no-confidence vote by Harvard faculty, he resigned.)
“If you choose to be the President of Harvard or the Episcopal Chaplain at Yale, you’ve got to be a little more careful about what you say,” Lipstadt said.
Leaning back in a swivel chair on the second floor of the Slifka Center, where she has been invited to give a talk on rising anti-semitism in Europe, and flashing colored polka dot socks (“I need some happiness for an otherwise dour topic,” she said), she concluded by quoting the Talmud.
“Wise people, be careful with your words.”
* * *
In the stifling humidity of Woolsey Hall, Salovey, looking out on the faces of 1,361 new students, drew to a close.
He had acknowledged the difficulty of fostering “friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect” while listening to views we find deplorable. But, he said, if we value the former over the unfettered exchange of words, we risk sacrificing the very purpose of a university.
Programs with “Bright College Years” lyrics doubled as fans, and a colorful cadre of robes speckled the stage. Veteran administrators, along with a slew of the president’s newest hires—freshmen in their own right—stood immediately behind Salovey.
The president— his voice at once exuberant and earnest—concluded.
“Isn’t the opportunity to engage with [life-changing ideas, ideas that rock our worlds]—whether to embrace them or dispute them—the reason why you chose Yale?”
Contact Hannah Schwarz at