Free speech had a bad winter recess. Its setbacks ranged from the troubling harassment of Brandeis University student Daniel Mael to the murderous attack on the Charlie Hebdo humor magazine in Paris by Islamist extremists.
A hallmark of virtually every evil society is the suppression of speech because, as thinkers as diverse as former Justice Hugo Black and ex-Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky have remarked, tyranny is premised on lies. Where speech is free, truths can abide.
President Salovey welcomed my class to Yale with a speech that in a better time would have been banal. He explained even while “unfettered free expression is so essential on a university campus” that “we should not offend merely to offend.” He decried explicit speech codes on campuses, and suggested “free speech must be protected even when social norms are compromised by the speaker.” Salovey’s suggested salvo to students offended by others’ speech was their own speech.
Administrators and students at Brandeis, perhaps insufficiently embarrassed by their school’s decision to disinvite Ayaan Hirsi Ali last year, violated Salovey’s ideal by going after Mael, a student journalist for the conservative website Truthrevolt.com. On Dec. 20, 2014, Mael wrote an article about a student leader at Brandeis who wrote on Twitter that she had “no sympathy for the NYPD officers who were murdered today” and that “amerikkka needs an intifada.” In response to his journalism, Mael was called a “racist piece of shit” and many of his classmates at Brandeis called for his suspension.
According to the Washington Free Beacon, a student named Michael Piccione circulated a “request from many members of the Brandeis community that the student responsible for the incident be held accountable for his actions.” Mael’s reproduction in one online forum of someone’s posts in a different online forum amounted to, in Piccione’s words, an unacceptable “impact … on other people’s safety.” According to the Free Beacon, Brandeis restricted Mael from contacting or occupying the same place as Piccione. The order was lifted hours after the Free Beacon initially reported it.
Mael’s experiences were bad, but they should not surprise those familiar with the state of free speech on college campuses. Last year, a slew of commencement speakers, from Condoleeza Rice to Christine Lagarde, were disinvited after students and professors protested. As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has documented, many colleges designate spots on campus where speech is free. Everywhere else, then, harassment and speech codes can prevail.
Though President Salovey was mostly concerned with free expression at universities, he hinted at the consequences for “our nations and the world.” If he had given his speech this week, he might have highlighted Paris.
The men who massacred the journalists at a French newspaper — that, for Americans, might recall The Onion — thought they were doing so in the name of Islam. They believed that the creation of graven images of Muhammad, the Muslim prophet, is punishable by death. Indeed, they could be heard shouting their glee at avenging their prophet while they shot their victims. But the exact way they displayed their radicalism had to do specifically with a hatred for dissent.
After I heard President Salovey’s address, I was grateful that he would be president during my time in New Haven. But his influence extends beyond the University.
He could circulate a letter among American college presidents, expressing solidarity with the French government and French universities in their pursuit of liberal societies. He could publicly condemn other schools’ violations of his ideals of free speech. He could circulate the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoons to Yale students in a mass email, reiterating his support for free speech here, there and everywhere.
This would be some recompense for Yale’s decision to censor Kurt Westergaard’s cartoons in 2009 from a book called “Cartoons That Shook the World.” Universities that censor hurt the cause of liberal society. Salovey’s vision is one in which they are terrorists’ most vicious enemies, not their least witting instruments, in this necessary and proper fight.
Cole Aronson is a freshman in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.