“All this ICE but no detention centers in sight,” read the caption, beneath an Instagram photo of a Yale junior smiling amid a backdrop of snowy mountains.
Was the gaffe a distasteful joke or an affront to undocumented immigrants? Yale administrators and faculty disagreed. Screenshots of the post — a play on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and ice itself — quickly went viral on social media. Students denounced the junior for joking about the plight of undocumented immigrants, who sometimes spend weeks and months in border detention facilities. Tweets criticizing the post received thousands of likes and more than 900 retweets. One student said he is “glad to see that Yale is still prepping for the future generations of Kavanaughs.” Others urged their peers to email the head of the junior’s residential college, psychology professor Laurie Santos and demanded consequences for the junior.
The News has chosen not to name the junior given that he is not a public figure on campus. The student did not respond to on the record requests for comment.
As emails requesting the student to be held accountable for his Instagram post inundated Santos’ inbox, the Silliman Head of College responded to at least one student’s call for action against the junior.
“I have now heard about this incident from many, many students,” Santos wrote in the email, which was obtained by the News. “I’m upset that a member of my community would post something like this and I will take action on it. I will be bringing this up with the proper channels.”
While some students said they appreciated Santos’ note, many members of the University community voiced concerns about the email’s implications on whether administrators and faculty members have the jurisdiction to regulate students’ speech.
English professor David Bromwich said the idea that the junior “should somehow be punished, or cited to justify a reprimand, seems a clear overreach of authority.”
“[Of] course the result [of Santos’ email] would be to chill speech generally,” Bromwich said. “People say silly things like this all the time, on campus and in everyday life elsewhere. Will you install microphones in the potted plants and try to catch them all?”
In an interview with the News, Chairman of the Institute for Free Speech Bradley Smith said Santos’ email is “absurd and anti-liberal.” The email sends a message that students now have to be extra careful to not upset others and “gives a license to social justice warriors to pick on students they don’t like,” Smith said. He added that free speech is not only about a lack of censorship, but also about an open attitude of accepting controversial ideas.
In an email to the News on Wednesday, Santos said in hindsight, she “would have worded things differently to make it clearer that what I wanted to do was gather more information — that was the action I had in mind.”
She added that after finding out additional information on what had happened, she checked in with both the junior and with “the community who was affected by the post.” She also reached out to a peer liaison and Director of La Casa Eileen Galvez to discuss hosting conversations about how the post affected the Silliman community, Santos explained. Galvez told the News that she is proud to know that students in La Casa engaged in their own free speech by stating how the junior’s Instagram post had impacted them.
“When I wrote, I was boarding a plane just as I saw that my email inbox was full of messages, and in the moment, I didn’t have enough details to understand what had happened,” Santos explained. “I finally understood that students were writing to me about a private social media post. Yale does not police student’s free speech, and so it is not appropriate for me to try to influence what students can or can’t say, including on social media, but I nevertheless saw that the community was deeply affected by the post.”
According to University President Peter Salovey, heads of colleges do not have the right to regulate students’ free speech, irrespective of whether they agree with students or not. They should create inclusive and welcoming environments and sponsor regular programs to promote the free exchange of ideas, Salovey said. In an interview with the News earlier this month, Salovey explained that members of the University should be “willing to tolerate the intolerable” to avoid going “down a slippery slope of regulating speech [and] deciding what’s offensive and what’s not.”
Salovey did not comment on whether he had spoken with Santos about her handling of the matter.
“I would like to take this opportunity to underscore that Yale is committed firmly to free expression,” Salovey said. “To learn, to create knowledge, to teach and to improve the world, we must engage in the exchange of ideas freely, especially when we disagree with one another. I have always encouraged members of the Yale community to participate in open discussions because the answer to speech that offends us is, most often, our own speech.”
The debate over Santos’ email comes almost exactly four years after another free speech controversy cast Silliman College and its then-Master and then-Associate Master Nicholas Christakis and Erika Christakis into the national spotlight. In 2015, an email from Erika Christakis defending students’ right to wear “offensive” Halloween costumes prompted widespread backlash on campus, and many students, faculty members and alumni voiced concerns on how controversial opinions are treated on Yale’s campus.
To learn more about the state of free speech at Yale, the News distributed a survey to all first years, sophomores, juniors and seniors. The results were not adjusted for selection bias.
When asked how comfortable they felt sharing their opinions at Yale, 63 percent of the 905 sophomore, juniors and seniors who answered the question said they were either “comfortable” or “very comfortable.” 15 percent said they were “uncomfortable” expressing their thoughts, while only 8 percent said they felt “very uncomfortable.”
But responses to this question varied drastically between liberals and conservatives, with 75 percent of the latter saying they were “uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” expressing their thoughts on campus. In contrast, only 8 percent of question respondents who identified themselves as liberal said they felt “uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” sharing their opinions at Yale.
“I think the challenge … is that there is a reluctance from students … to speak their mind in front of their peers if they believe their view is unpopular,” Salovey said in an interview with the News earlier this month. “We need to create an environment that pushes against that tendency to be reluctant on an unpopular view.”
For the same 905 sophomore, junior and senior respondents, while 48 percent of “liberal” and “very liberal” students said they have stopped themselves from sharing an idea because they feared the consequences of expressing them, while 93 percent of “conservative” or “very conservative” students said they have censored themselves. In addition, of 854 sophomore, junior and senior question respondents, 65 percent said the Yale community is “somewhat not diverse” or “extremely not diverse” in political opinion.
Still, students and faculty members diverged on how to interpret the survey statistics. In an interview with the News, Abel Negussie ’22 said conservative students feeling uncomfortable on Yale’s campus is “more indicative of intrinsic problems with conservatism,” rather than of the University’s culture. Conservative values and diversity do not go well together, and Yale is a campus with students of diverse ethnicities, religions, nationalities and backgrounds, Negussie said.
But in an interview with the News, Bromwich said diversity of opinion is a measure of free speech. For his part, Thomas Kadri GRD ’23 — who is a fellow at the Yale Information Society Project — added that while people should have the right to speak freely, free speech does not mean that people cannot criticize others if they dislike what is said.
“That said, it might also be worrying if many students ‘fear’ the ‘consequences’ of expressing their ideas and opinions,” Kadri added. “Quite how worrying it is would depend on a few things, I think. Are their fears reasonable? What do they actually fear will happen — criticism, social ostracism, bad grades on assignments, worse job prospects?”
American Studies professor Matt Jacobson said that while the University may have some work to do, feeling uncomfortable is “emphatically not a ‘free speech’ issue of the constitutional sort.” Self-censorship is different from government censorship, and is in some cases “an organic response to the contending interests and the internalized dissonance brought about by social change and societal polarization,” Jacobson said.
He added that even if the climate issues on campus are very real and need to be addressed, it is important to recognize that there is a concerted effort on the right to use free speech as an instrument to advance a particular agenda, such as framing discrimination of ethnic, religious and racial minorities as freedom of expression.
In an interview with the News, Salovey emphasized that many of his speeches have encouraged Yale community members to engage with those who hold opinions contrary to their own. While he finds racist speech “disgusting” and “abhorrent” and would use his speech to condemn offensive insults, he does not support regulations that restrict speech, Salovey said.
Still, law professor Anthony Kronman GRD ‘72 LAW ‘75 — who published a controversial book about excellence, diversity and free speech in higher education last month — said that commitment to free speech requires “more than words on paper.”
“It’s a very easy thing to declare your support of free expression as a formal matter,” Kronman said. “It’s a much more difficult thing to ensure a culture of vigorous even sometimes uncivil exchange. That depends importantly on the tone that’s set from the top, by leaders of the University and by its faculty who have [to demonstrate] by their own words and actions that unpopular views get a full public hearing too.”
The C. Vann Woodward report, which outlines Yale’s policies on free speech, was published in 1973 when Kingman Brewster Jr. was University President.
Serena Cho | firstname.lastname@example.org