This article has been updated to reflect the version that ran in print on Nov. 9.
After a comment made by speaker Greg Lukianoff during a private William F. Buckley, Jr. Program conference on free speech was posted on the Facebook group “Overheard at Yale” Friday afternoon, over 100 students gathered around Linsly-Chittenden Hall to voice their anger.
“Looking at the reaction to [Silliman College Associate Master] Erika Christakis’ email, you would have thought someone wiped out an entire Indian village,” Lukianoff said, according to Gian-Paul Bergeron ’17, who was present at the event and posted the quotation online just after 4 p.m. According to seven other attendees interviewed, the remark was followed by laughter in the crowd, although students present gave different accounts of how many audience members laughed. Lukianoff is president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization committed to defending individual rights on American college campuses. In addition to speaking at the Buckley conference, Lukianoff was also a guest at a Silliman College Master’s Tea Thursday evening about the importance of free speech on college campuses. He is the author of “Coddling of the American Mind,” an article in The Atlantic that Erika Christakis tweeted last week in response to criticism of her Oct. 30 email defending students’ rights to wear costumes that might be deemed culturally appropriative.
The conference, which was planned months before allegations of racial discrimination surrounding both Christakis’ email and a Sigma Alpha Epsilon party attracted national attention this past week, was open to the entire Yale community but required prior registration, and the deadline was in October. Opening remarks for the daylong conference were given by Silliman College Master Nicholas Christakis, who has also elicited heavy criticism for his defense of his wife’s email. Other speakers included former Federal Election Commission Commissioner Bradley Smith and U.S. Sen. Benjamin Sasse GRD ’04, and over 250 students, alumni and donors attended the conference, according to Buckley Program President Zach Young ’17.
Before the comment was made, Edward Columbia ’18 — a white male who did not register for the event — walked into the room and began putting up signs along the front of the room which read “Stand with your sisters of color. Now, here. Always, everywhere,” according to Columbia and Bergeron. They both said a security guard asked Columbia to leave because he was not registered and because he was putting up posters, but he refused to do so. Shortly after, Lukianoff made the comment about the Indian village, and Columbia shouted at Lukianoff and asked him why he thought it was funny, according to Columbia.
While Columbia resisted, the guard dragged him outside of the room, where he was pinned down and handcuffed before being taken to a squad car, Columbia said. Both Bergeron and Columbia said the officer used an appropriate amount of force. Columbia was given a citation, which he called “a mere slap on the wrist,” and said he will appear in court, though he declined to specify when this will happen.
“I couldn’t let the joke go. It was too f—ed up,” Columbia said. “All of the officers treated me well, and I feel bad for putting a security officer who was just doing his job in a position where he had to drag me out. But I also wonder whether I would have been released so quickly … if I weren’t a white male.”
Some Buckley fellows present at the event gave a slightly different account. They said they were not bothered when Columbia put up signs and only asked him to leave when he interrupted and shouted at the speaker. The signs were taken down after Columbia’s removal.
The online Facebook post led a group of Native American women, other students of color and their supporters to protest the conference in an impromptu gathering outside of LC 102, where the Buckley event was taking place. Officers from the Yale Police Department stood in front of the entrance, announcing that the event was at full capacity and that no one who had not registered would be allowed to enter.
The situation escalated when Young and another attendee left the room where the conference was taking place to offer food to the protestors in the hallway. Students demanded that a representative from the protesters be allowed to join the conference and voice their views. But one attendee engaged with the protesters, stating that unregistered students were not allowed into the room and adding that speakers within the conference were entitled to their views as well. The standoff quickly became confrontational, with speakers on both sides raising their voices. Young said he did not stay to address the protesters because he was busy organizing the event. He stressed that the protesters were not allowed into the event because they had not registered.
“I will share the University’s policy on free speech,” Dean of Student Engagement Burgwell Howard, who arrived near the end of the conference, told the crowd. “You have a right to free expression, and so do the people inside. As long as there’s a clear path [to allow attendees to leave the conference] you can hold up your signs.”
Howard reminded the student protesters that any attempt at blocking the attendees’ departure would risk arrest, which the students acknowledged.
Around 5:45 p.m., as attendees began to leave the conference, students outside chanted the phrase “Genocide is not a joke” and held up written signs of the same words. Taking Howard’s reminder into account, protesters formed a clear path through which attendants could leave. A large group of students eventually gathered outside of the building on High Street. According to Buckley fellows present during the conference, several attendees were spat on as they left. One Buckley fellow said he was spat on and called a racist. Another, who is a minority himself, said he has been labeled a “traitor” by several fellow minority students. Both asked to remain anonymous because they were afraid of attracting backlash.
Mitchell Rose Bear Don’t Walk ’16, a Native American student and one of the leaders of the protest, said she has spoken to the fellow who said he was spat on. She emphasized that spitting is “disgraceful” and not the message the protestors were looking to convey, but she confirmed that it did happen.
“The spitting happened,” she told the News Sunday night. “Our movement is founded in the idea that all people’s voices should be heard. We cannot maintain the integrity of this message whilst questioning or silencing other accounts.”
An emotional rally soon followed as the last attendees emerged from LC and left the conference. Bullhorn in hand, Bear Don’t Walk shared her anger with the crowd, which had grown in size, about the comment made at the Buckley event. She expressed despair that this comment came on the heels of discussions about racial issues on campus.
“About an hour ago, we were sitting at the Native American Cultural Center and we were talking. We said today was one of the only days we felt okay on this campus,” Bear Don’t Walk told the crowd. “Then we looked at our Facebook feed and we saw this message about what someone at this freedom of speech conference said. But we rallied and we gathered here to tell them that this is not okay.”
Ending on the chant “We out here, we’ve been here, we ain’t leaving, we are loved” — a phrase that was also used during Thursday’s gatherings on Cross Campus with Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway — protesters soon dispersed. Before leaving, protesters left their signs along the building’s walkway.
Buckley Fellows interviewed said the Facebook post misrepresented what occurred during the conference. Connor Wood ’19 said while there was laughter following Lukianoff’s comment, many attendees were made uncomfortable by the statement. Gabriel Ozuna ’15 added that most audience members were Yale alumni and donors who were not fully aware of the past week’s racially charged events.
“Although I think the protesters misinterpreted the ‘Overheard at Yale’ post, I think the protest is a good sign of healthy debate and free speech at Yale,” Woods said.
In a statement to the News, Young wrote that the protesters’ actions have highlighted the need to protect free speech on campus.
“The protesters yesterday underscored the need to vigorously promote a culture of free expression at Yale,” he wrote. “Disagreement is not grounds for censorship, disruption or intimidation.”
Speaking with the News Saturday, Young said organizers of the event had taken appropriate and responsible precautions. He said he had contacted the YPD several days before and was in communication with Holloway and University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews before and during the event.
Yale Native American Arts Council President Emily Van Alst ’16 said the comment mocked a cultural genocide. Everyone should have the right to free speech, she said, but there is a distinct line between free speech and hateful, hurtful, racist speech which results in violence.
Bear Don’t Walk said the protesters followed all the appropriate rules and formed a path for the attendees of the Buckley event. However, she did acknowledge that it is difficult for students to have productive discussions in such emotionally charged situations.
“Things got heated on both sides,” she said. “It’s hard to have constructive discussions when there is a large group of people who are passionate and emotional about what’s at stake.”