Recently, it has become fashionable in some circles to posture oneself as a martyr for free speech. As someone from a different part of the world, where the right to free speech is far more tenuous, I know exactly what an antifree speech mob looks like — and Yale students don’t even come close.
Let’s be clear: as a private institution, Yale has no constitutional obligation to protect First Amendment rights. But Yale subscribes to a set of high standards. The 1975 Woodward Report, which forms the bedrock of University policy, offers some of the most robust protections for freedom of expression amongst American universities.
Unfortunately, conservatives and self-proclaimed libertarians often use the Woodward Report misleadingly. The protection of free speech does not entail protection from the backlash that arises from a speech act. As long as the reaction does not involve violence, threats of violence or disruption of others’ speech, anything is fair game. Contrary to the view that the marketplace of ideas insulates you from the possibility of a boycott, the Woodward Report acknowledges that “social and ethical responsibilities must be left to the informal processes of suasion, example and argument.”
Accordingly, the picketing outside of last Friday’s Buckley Program conference was perfectly consistent with the principles of free expression, to the extent that it was peaceful and did not obstruct entrance into the building. So, too, was the confrontation with Nicholas Christakis in the Silliman courtyard, and the demands that he apologize to students. In fact, the Woodward Report specifically states that it is “desirable” for individuals to register their disagreement with speakers whose views they find offensive in “a wide-open and robust fashion.”
Some seem to believe that speech is only legitimate if it is logical, dispassionate and civil. But the protection of overtly disrespectful speech is what lies at the heart of this freedom. When one genuinely believes that an injustice has transpired, outrage can sometimes be a virtue, even if it is expressed in a four-letter word. Of course, what constitutes an injustice is a matter for debate. But this caveat does not invalidate the sentiment of those who believe an injustice has indeed occurred. Too often, “rationality” is the privilege of those who haven’t experienced the irrationality of prejudice.
While I don’t necessarily think Christakis should be forced to resign, I wouldn’t object if he were booted out. To a greater degree than faculty members, administrators are routinely expected to exercise discretion and sound judgment in their words, in order to effectively carry out their duties. The authors of the Woodward report used soaring language, but they were also realists. For instance, they found it completely acceptable for administrators to persuade a group not to invite a speaker who might cause serious tension on campus.
By contrast, Christakis has been tone-deaf to the sentiments of his constituents, and has persisted in polarizing the college. His wife’s use of the Silliman mailing list to propagate her personal views was already a misjudgment — there are other forums to share such views. Subsequently, on Nov. 4, the official Silliman Twitter account was used to re-tweet an article on free speech from Christakis’ personal account. The next day, Christakis failed to ensure his guest complied with University policy prohibiting video recording on campus without the administration’s permission. And this week, Christakis is away in London even as many University leaders spend their nights and weekends being present for their students during this pivotal moment. While I don’t doubt the Christakis’ motivations, I do doubt their judgment.
I am all for standing up for one’s beliefs. But when an office-bearer feels his views conflict with his duties, he must sometimes make a trade-off between the two. If conviction comes into conflict with ambition, I would gladly sacrifice the pull of office for the call of conscience.
All of this is not to suggest that the discourse on our campus is perfect. By all means, question the reasoning (or lack thereof) of fellow students, or the intellectual tenor of the community. If it suits you, reminisce about the 1960s, when college students stormed University buildings, the New Haven police wiretapped the phones of Yale’s student leaders and women were entirely disenfranchised. But don’t doubt the Yale community’s commitment to free speech. It is as strong as it has ever been.
Jun Yan Chua is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .