Last Friday, the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program hosted its fifth annual conference on “The Future of Free Speech.” Planned over six months ago, the daylong conference brought together 14 distinguished guests from policy, journalism and academia to discuss contemporary issues of free speech. The prospect of our panelists speaking freely, however, did not sit well with everyone at Yale.
The unrest began when a student in a yellow t-shirt rushed to the front of the lecture hall during a panel. When other attendees told him to sit down, he refused and instead taped posters across the wall. A Yale police officer stationed outside entered the room and asked the student to leave.
“You’re going to have to carry me out,” the student said. The officer obliged.
Another student soon wrote about the incident on the Facebook group “Overheard at Yale.” Comments on the post identified our event’s location. “Run through,” one recommended.
Protesters lined up outside the lecture hall. Some demanded that we immediately add speakers of their choosing to the conference. Others tried to get into the lecture hall, which was oversubscribed and required preregistration. Police stood guard at the doors to ensure our symposium could go on as planned.
The professed reason for the protest was an off-color joke made by one of the panelists, Greg Lukianoff. “Given the reaction to Erika Christakis’s email, you would have thought she burned down an Indian village,” he said, referring to an email sent a week prior about Halloween attire.
Whether or not the remark was in poor taste is beside the point. As the Woodward Report, a cornerstone of Yale policy, makes clear, free speech is about the ability to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable and challenge the unchallengeable.” In any case, the protests did not conclude when Lukianoff left the stage.
For nearly two hours, the crowd outside grew in size and volume. Social media attacks on our organization intensified. When I offered the protesters leftover cookies — intended as a nice gesture — I was called a “white colonizer” and told to stay in the hallway to be “educated.” As audience members exited the lecture hall, protesters chanted, “Genocide is not a joke,” called attendees “traitors” and “racists” and, in at least one instance, spat on an attendee affiliated with the Buckley Program.
Our entire conference on free speech had come under attack.
Some would argue that free speech is merely a political right enshrined in our Constitution. So long as the federal government isn’t censoring anyone, it has been achieved. Yet this conception treats free speech as if it arose in a vacuum — as if it is a fact of life rather than a normative ideal.
The Constitution is an aspirational document, which states principles and a vision for our society. For free speech to be actualized, it must be an active and tangible part of everyday life. It can only exist in a culture of intellectual humility that recognizes that the whole truth is seldom expressed in prevailing views.
The university has always been essential to this project. It can foster a climate for intellectual expression that is open, honest and civil. It is no coincidence that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin — two pioneers of free speech — also founded universities.
Yet last Friday, we saw how delicate this climate is. What good is the First Amendment when people are shamed for holding dissenting views? Those protesters who called me a “white colonizer” and posted on Facebook “unfriend me if you disagree” are creating a campus culture that is hostile to free expression and the exchange of ideas. It is a culture in which students and faculty are afraid to voice their opinions. It is a culture of conformity, intimidation and silence.
I did not agree with everything our speakers said. Nonetheless, it was when I disagreed that I encountered new views and perspectives — and found myself reconsidering my own. Free speech is not just about persuading others; it’s about understanding and articulating ourselves.
What does it say when holding an event on free speech requires the presence of several Yale police officers? Fortunately, the Buckley Program is in a financial position to incur these costs, yet not every student organization is.
I worry that other students seeking to stand up for free speech may find their events dictated by the whims of protesters. Ultimately, we completed our conference, which included a fantastic keynote address by Sen. Ben Sasse.
The Woodward Report called the “free interchange of ideas” indispensable to the fulfillment of a university’s mission. At Yale, we must work together to vigorously defend free speech as the report envisions. We must make an effort to engage in meaningful and respectful dialogue — even with those that vehemently disagree.
Zach Young is a junior in Silliman College. He is president of the Buckley Program. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .