University President Peter Salovey praised residential college namesake Pauli Murray’s commitment to free speech and emphasized the importance of freedom of expression in a New York Times op-ed published Sunday.
The op-ed arrived just over a year after Salovey published a similar piece in the Wall Street Journal, in which he reaffirmed the University’s — and his own — commitment to freedom of expression. In the Times piece, Salovey describes Murray’s unwavering defense of the First Amendment when she was seeking her doctorate of jurisprudence at Yale Law School. But he refrains from mentioning the controversies at Yale that have reverberated on campus and beyond.
“In recent months, visitors with controversial views have found themselves disinvited from or unable to speak on American college campuses,” Salovey wrote. “These struggles are often portrayed as new and radical assaults on freedom of speech. But they are not new. For decades, conservatives and liberals have argued over which speakers should be allowed to address university audiences.”
Salovey writes in the op-ed that Murray sent a letter advising then-University President Kingman Brewster Jr. not to bar then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace, an outspoken segregationist, from campus in 1963. The Yale Political Union had invited Wallace to speak. But weeks before his scheduled talk, Klansmen bombed a Baptist church in Alabama. Many blamed Wallace’s outright and incendiary opposition to integration or the violence.
Salovey praised Murray, a black woman and a granddaughter of a slave, for defending free speech despite her personal stake against the speaker.
Ultimately, Wallace did not speak at Yale after Brewster advised students to disinvite him. But years later, Brewster chartered a committee to examine free expression at Yale. According to the op-ed, guidelines from the C. Vann Woodward Report — submitted by the committee — continue to inform Yale’s policies.
But according to Sam Chauncey ’57, who was assistant dean of Yale College at the time, Salovey’s op-ed failed to give an accurate description of what transpired.
“Brewster had to make a decision between the value of free speech on one hand and the pragmatic decision of safety to the people at Yale and the buildings,” said Chauncey, who was one of several of Brewster’s advisors on the matter. “This was a period in which you always had to think about both the principle of the question, and also was it possible that people could die, or is it possible that buildings could be burned down, because that was happening elsewhere.”
By 1963, physical violence had not erupted on campus in recent memory, although previous speakers, such as the secretary general of the United States Communist Party and the inventor of the transistor radio — who was an ardent white supremacist — had prompted picketing and protesting. At other campuses in the ’60s and ’70s, terrible violence led to student deaths, Chauncey said.
Free speech has been a controversial topic on campus over the past several years. Just over two years ago, then-Associate Head of Silliman College Erika Christakis sent an email to the Silliman community questioning whether the administration should have jurisdiction over students’ Halloween costumes. A video of an angry student shouting at then-Head of College Nicholas Christakis went viral soon after.
Amid these controversies, media outlets have decried the supposed threat to free speech at Yale. When an economics professor made an exam optional in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Yale students were described as “special snowflakes” by some conservative-leaning publications.
Nicholas Christakis told the News that Salovey’s op-ed is “challenging and profound.”
“I wish this history about Pauli Murray, who I have so admired, had been available in 2015, because it would have been useful in helping students, faculty and administrators in the dean’s office understand the following truth: if it does not feel difficult to defend free expression, you are not doing it right,” Christakis wrote in an email to the News. “As for myself, I am very proud to belong to any tradition that Pauli Murray was also a part of.”
Spanish professor Noël Valis, who was one of five professors to sign a letter supporting free speech on campus earlier this fall, said she was “heartened” to read Salovey’s op-ed.
“It’s always good to hear from the top a strong stance in defense of the freedom of speech,” she said. “It sends a clear signal to anyone thinking of shutting free speech down on campus.”
But not everyone was impressed with the piece. David Solin ’97 said Salovey’s op-ed was a “puff piece” designed to counter the public perception that Yale is not institutionally committed to protecting free speech. He said he supported the op-ed, but questioned how far Salovey would go to protect freedom of speech in the face of resistance, adding that students who suppress free speech, such as those who shouted at Christakis, should be disciplined.
Noah Daponte-Smith ’18, a former News staff reporter and the former vice president of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program, described the op-ed as a stronger defense of free speech than Salovey’s previous statements. He said students advocating for free speech cannot ask for clearer or more forceful rhetoric than what Salovey wrote.
Gabriel Groz ’19, chair of the Party of the Left, said Salovey’s piece adds nuance to the debate over free expression on college campuses.
Groz added that Murray’s own beliefs demonstrate that freedom of speech has long been a central aspect of antiwar, labor and racial justice activism, rather than just an issue championed by the political right. But, he said, Murray’s views differ significantly from those of conservative ideologues today: For Murray, defending the right to freedom of expression included defending the right to protest.
Pauli Murray received a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from Yale Law School in 1965.
Hailey Fuchs | email@example.com
Clarification, Nov. 28: This article has been updated to reflect that it was in fact the secretary general of the United States Communist Party who had prompted picketing and protesting in the 1960s.