A group of around 40 Yale professors and members of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program gathered at The Study on Saturday evening to celebrate the organization’s reprinting of the 1975 Woodward “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale,” an 80-page booklet including additional academic commentary.
In September, the Buckley program, which seeks to promote intellectual diversity on campus, released “Campus Speech in Crisis: What the Yale Experience Can Teach America.” At the reception Saturday, students and faculty expressed concern over the state of free speech on campus, with federal appellate judge José Cabranes LAW ’65 giving a keynote address on the Woodward Report’s current relevance to free speech at Yale.
“This is the right time to reprint the Woodward Report,” Cabranes said. “We are dealing today with interrelated developments at Yale that threaten freedom of expression and the institutions that protect it … These are developments that, if not addressed, ultimately threaten Yale’s place among the great universities of the world.”
Yale’s Woodward Report was written in response to a 1970s climate of censorship and a series of speaker “disinvitations” by disapproving students, Cabranes said. Amid this tumult, then-University President Kingman Brewster appointed History professor C. Vann Woodward chairman of a new “Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale.” Defending free expression at Yale, Woodward and his committee members sought to preserve “the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable and challenge the unchallengeable.”
On Saturday, Cabranes argued that the University’s attempt to create “safe spaces” and to monitor student and faculty behavior jeopardizes the values and freedoms outlined in the Woodward Report.
After the Woodward Report’s release, Yale students and faculty praised the report, as did senior members of the University administration, he said. Cabranes, who became the first-ever General Counsel to Yale in 1975, recalled that the Woodward Report’s had an almost “constitutional status” for Yale.
“Since the First Amendment may not offer protection to speech at private universities, the Woodward Report sought to establish a fundamental principle of similar force as a matter of University law,” Cabranes said.
Today, Cabranes said Yale students have less immediate access to the Woodward Report because many University documents are predominantly available online, not in print. He argued that as documents like the Woodward Report have become less visually present on campus, the senior administration has also become less attentive to free speech issues like last year’s controversy surrounding professors Erika and Nicholas Christakis.
Additionally, Cabranes said Yale’s emphasis on campus civility in recent years has come at the expense of free expression. As Yale emphasizes the creation of “safe spaces” on campus, Cabranes expressed concern for the possibility that students and faculty may no longer feel comfortable expressing their opinions freely.
He went on to argue that government policies which seek to prevent workplace harassment can make professors feel restricted and restrained in their research and teaching. He concluded his speech by applauding the University of Chicago’s commitment to campus free speech in their 2015 “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression.”
Cabranes called on the Yale community to revitalize in the coming months and years its reputation as a champion of free intellectual discourse.
Students interviewed after the event agreed with Cabranes’ depiction of the free-speech culture at Yale.
“I think what his remarks demonstrated is that these ideals are not political in nature … they are bipartisan,” Buckley Program President Joshua Altman ’17 said. “They belong to every Yale student.”
Other students condemned what they described as a culture of surveillance at Yale.
But while Emil Friedman ’20 agreed with Cabranes’ talk, he said the question of free speech is only part of the picture.
“I think that when it comes to something like trigger warnings and safe spaces, I agree with [Cabranes],” Friedman said. “I think they do limit free speech. But, I do think there is something to be said for human decency,”
“Campus Speech in Crisis: What the Yale Experience Can Teach America” is available for purchase on Amazon.com for $4.