Despite ongoing campus discussions about free speech, Yale remains deeply unwelcoming to students with conservative political beliefs, according to a News survey distributed earlier this month.
Nearly 75 percent of 2,054 respondents who completed the survey — representing views across the political spectrum — said they believe Yale does not provide a welcoming environment for conservative students to share their opinions on political issues. Among the 11.86 percent of respondents who described themselves as either “conservative” or “very conservative,” the numbers are even starker: Nearly 95 percent said the Yale community does not welcome their opinions. About two-thirds of respondents who described themselves as “liberal” or “very liberal” said Yale is not welcoming to conservative students.
“Anybody who supports Donald Trump or is a Republican is just hated,” said one respondent, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of backlash from liberal students. “I just get the general vibe that Republicans aren’t respected for their beliefs as much as maybe the liberal people are.”
More than 60 percent of the 103 Yale students supporting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said they are “uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” discussing their political beliefs at Yale.
The 2,054 respondents make up 37.58 percent of Yale’s undergraduate population, and results have not been adjusted for bias.
By contrast, more than 98 percent of respondents said Yale is welcoming to students with liberal beliefs. And among students who described themselves as “liberal” or “very liberal,” 85 percent said they are “comfortable” or “very comfortable” sharing their political views in campus discussions.
In an interview with the News, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway said the results of the survey were lamentable but unsurprising. Holloway attributed conservative students’ discomfort at sharing their views partly to the pervasiveness of social media.
“So much of your generation’s world is managed through smart phones. There’s no margin anymore for saying something stupid,” Holloway said. “People have been saying dumb things forever, but when I was your age word of mouth would take a while. Now it’s instantaneous, now context is stripped away.”
Holloway added that Yale is one of many liberal arts universities where conservative views are highly unpopular, noting that in election years the political environment can become especially heated.
According to a 2015 article in the Harvard Crimson’s weekly magazine, many conservative students at Harvard College feel like their political opinions are neither respected nor appreciated. And in a recent article in The College Fix, a right-leaning online news outlet, a student at Columbia said that he feared he would be “physically assaulted” if he displayed conservative images or slogans on his clothing.
Still, Karl Notturno ’17, an outspoken Trump supporter, said he feels comfortable discussing his beliefs, even though he agrees that overall Yale is unwelcoming to conservative viewpoints.
“I have been very honest for most of my life. I’m not going to change myself to what others want me to be,” Notturno said. “I’m a little bit of an anomaly, but most Trump supporters I know don’t feel comfortable talking about it.”
Kevin Olteanu ’19, a member of the conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. Program, said his views make him a “rebel in the crowd” who keeps conversations in his friend group interesting.
Scott Smith ’18 said that while he would be considered a liberal outside of Yale, he is more conservative than most students on campus. Smith said his views have grown more conservative over the course of his time at the University.
“I think on social issues I’ve become somewhat less liberal mainly because of how incredibly liberal Yale is,” Smith said. “I’m not a fan of going along with the majority on everything. I think I’ve been pushing back against all of that mainly because it’s just frustrating to see only one viewpoint being expressed, and expressed loudly.”
But not all conservative Yalies feel as comfortable outside of the majority. Grant Richardson ’19 said it sometimes feels “intimidating” to voice conservative opinions during discussion sections.
Claire Williamson ’17 said it became harder to express conservative viewpoints during the controversies surrounding Calhoun College and the title“master” last fall. Students who did not hold the “popular vocal opinion” of renaming the college and changing the title were seen not only as wrong, she said, but as bad people.
“I would say it’s a frustrating Catch-22 to be a conservative-leaning moderate or conservative on campus,” Williamson said. “You’re sort of airing your own political views and trying to talk about them with the risk that someone disagrees with you to the point of assuming you’re an immoral person because of them. You either stay silent or you risk alienating some of your friends and groups around you.”
Still, political science lecturer Jim Sleeper ’69 said unwritten rules about when one should and should not share controversial opinions have existed for decades and are “woven into the fabric” of the University.
“Some of what we call self-censorship is necessary and good,” he said. “What you disagree about productively depends on certain things you agree not to disagree about. Civility requires self-restraint.”
Clarification (Oct. 27): Describing the statement he initially provided the News as unintentionally unclear, Dean Jonathan Holloway issued the following: “In no way did I intend to imply that the views of any student or faculty were stupid or should be dismissed. I meant to lament the fact that meaningful conversations were too often reduced or misconstrued in the shortened messages of social media, leading to a lack of understanding. I apologize if my words were misconstrued and taken to mean anything otherwise.”
Yale was featured prominently as one of three case studies in a report on freedom of speech at American universities, but the report went largely unnoticed on campus.
The 100-page report, titled “And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Freedom of Speech at U.S. Universities,” was released on Oct. 17 by the PEN American Center, an association of writers and editors dedicated to promoting free speech and freedom of the press.
One chapter of the report focuses on Yale and the events surrounding former Silliman College Associate Head Erika Christakis’ controversial Halloween email last fall. The report used the events at Yale to delve into the complexities of discussing controversial issues in a campus setting.
Still, Yale students and faculty interviewed were largely unaware of the report, and some said free speech issues were no longer as central to campus discourse. Furthermore, some students felt the report’s chapter on Yale only summarized last year’s events and thus did not receive much attention among Yalies because it added little information to a year-old discussion.
“Yale is a pretty insular campus,” said Alejandra Padin-Dujon ’18, a former spokeswoman for the activist organization Next Yale and one of two undergraduates quoted in the PEN report. “I don’t think students are terribly interested in what the outside world has to say about us in terms of placing us in the larger scheme unless that’s to support some sort of political agenda. … We know what Yale is like better than anyone who wrote about us would know.”
The report’s chapter on Yale — “Chilling Free Speech or Meeting Speech with Speech?” — examines the campus outcry over Erika Christakis’ email, which responded to an Intercultural Affairs Committee memo about appropriate Halloween costumes. The report also discusses other campus controversies, including the ongoing debate over the name of Calhoun College and allegations of racism at a Sigma Alpha Epsilon party last October.
In particular, the study addressed the Yale community’s response to former Silliman Head Nicholas Christakis and his wife, who left their roles in Silliman in July. While Nicholas Christakis did not respond to request for comment, he addressed the PEN America report in an Oct. 21 tweet. Christakis originally released a statement to PEN America in September while it was preparing the report.
“I retain my hope that my confidence in Yale students is not unfounded and that they will come to see these issues more clearly,” Christakis wrote to PEN America. “I believe in our common humanity and in the capacity of people engaged in open discussion to acquire a better understanding of each other. And I remain unsure that administrative intrusion into students’ forms of expression is beneficial to real, moral learning. The answer to speech we do not like is more speech.”
History professor Glenda Gilmore, a member of PEN America, said she thought the report balanced PEN America’s commitment to free speech with an accurate description of the events last fall. Gilmore added that she had not heard of any response to the report from the Yale community, except for Nicholas Christakis’ Twitter posts.
Students are not as vocal about freedom of speech issues this year as they were last year, Padin-Dujon said, because they are emotionally exhausted from the public scrutiny they received last fall. Padin-Dujon added that conversations about free speech occasionally emerge but are generally avoided because people are “sick of hearing about it as much as people are sick of explaining themselves again and again.”
“Even when the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming was going around, a lot of us were just too exhausted to contribute more to this when we spent last year on it,” Padin-Dujon said. “All I want right now is to be a student, and I recognize there are a lot of people who don’t really see any value in what we worked for last year. But it’s not my job to sacrifice my Yale education to make them see a little bit of sense in that regard.”
Padin-Dujon said that while she is proud of what student activists accomplished last year, she doesn’t think their work has changed the campus environment beyond “a few token admissions from the administration.” She added that despite the hard work of student activists, there is more stigma surrounding issues of free speech than ever before.
The PEN report is not as relevant to students this year because it is an “archive” that does not call anyone to action and is neither “vicious” nor provocative, Padin-Dujon said.
English professor David Bromwich said he is not aware of any attempts at censorship or of “provocative and controversial speech” on campus this year.
Bromwich said that pressure for censorship came mostly from political conservatives in the 1950s through 1970s but has come from the “left-liberal side” in more recent decades. He added he has not heard much about the PEN report but attributed this to how recently it was released.
Gilmore said the report is valuable as a straightforward account of the campus controversy.
“The organization that came on campus and taped student protests prior gave the public an erroneous impression of what happened here,” Gilmore said, referring to the civil liberties group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “While I do differ with it on some issues, the report does a good job of setting the record straight.”
The two other case studies in the report were from UCLA and Northwestern University.
Almost a year removed from a series of events that rocked campus and drew national attention to Yale, University President Peter Salovey took his opinions about free speech, inclusion and the controversial events of last fall to The Wall Street Journal.
In an op-ed last Monday, entitled “Yale Believes In Free Speech — and So Do I,” Salovey argued that free expression and inclusivity are not mutually exclusive. Writing that university presidents across the country have faced the conflict between inclusivity and free speech, Salovey said he believes Yale is an inclusive community that also promotes free speech. Invited speakers are free to express their views, and the administration does not punish faculty or students for their opinions, no matter how unpopular they are, he wrote in the article.
“All too often we hear people suggesting that inclusion and free expression are mutually exclusive — participants in a zero-sum game. Yale is in a terrific position to refute that claim, and I feel a personal responsibility to help do so,” Salovey told the News.
But students interviewed disagree with Salovey on the University’s track record in upholding free expression while also fostering an inclusive campus.
In response to Salovey’s column, former opinion editor for the News Aaron Sibarium ’18 published a letter in The Wall Street Journal criticizing Salovey’s “misrepresentation” of the events last fall, citing fear among several students to voice their opinions on controversial matters.
“Many students were worried that there wasn’t a respectful climate of reasoned debate on campus,” Sibarium said.
Joshua Altman ’17, president of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale, argued that Yale failed to do so during the fallout of former Silliman Associate Head Erika Christakis’ email, in which she defended students’ right to wear culturally insensitive costumes.
“Claiming that the Yale administration succeeded in this goal last fall strays too far from the fact pattern,” Altman said. The Buckley Program was founded in 2010 by a group of Yale undergraduates in order to promote intellectual diversity on campus.
Yale never declared that even if one disagrees with the Christakises’ views, the two raised legitimate questions that warrant vigorous debate, Altman pointed out.
“While the Yale administration did not ‘punish’ [Erika Christakis] for her remarks, they also did not defend her or her right to free expression,” said Kyle Tierney ’17, vice president of the Buckley Program. “Simultaneously, Yale failed to offer an inclusive environment to the Christakises. When the Christakises were slandered and cursed [at] in the Silliman courtyard, the image of Yale as an inclusive place of free expression was shattered.”
The Christakises resigned from their positions in Silliman College this summer after facing strong backlash and outcry from students.
In his article, Salovey said Yale adheres to the principles of free speech espoused by the Woodward Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale, a committee created in 1974 to promote the “fullest degree of intellectual freedom” on campus. The spirit of the report, Altman said, is not just that the administration does not censor speech but that it actively encourages debate and disagreement on issues such as race.
On Oct. 1, about 40 Yale professors gathered to celebrate the reprinting of the 1974 Woodward Report and listen to federal appellate judge José Cabranes LAW ’65 speak about the report’s relevance to the current situation of free speech at Yale.
Cabranes said the University’s “safe spaces” and the ways in which the free speech of students and faculty members is currently monitored jeopardizes the freedoms outlined and supported by the Woodward Report.
Still, students acknowledged Salovey’s commitment to free speech, as well as the administration’s efforts in that regard.
“If you want to have free speech, you need to be able to take offense,” said Alexander Sikorski ’20, who said he supports Salovey’s commitment to free speech. “By putting policies in place that prevent people from hearing offensive speech, you are limiting what may be justifiable opinions regardless of whether or not they are offensive.”
He added that he has not seen any case of violation of free speech by the administration.
Although the events from last fall still loom large, Altman said the climate of free speech at Yale seems better this year.
“As I wrote in the essay, our campus has proven, and is proving every day, that work toward the fullest possible inclusion doesn’t stifle speech but rather fosters it,” Salovey told the News. “Take our new Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration: what a remarkable range of dialogue is emerging already from the scholarship, ideas and voices that are coming together there.”
The center, established in response to the campus racial protest, is an academic and research center focused on race, ethnicity and identity. Along with the center, the University has taken other initiatives, including a doubling of the budgets of Yale’s four cultural centers and providing training for members of the administration on recognizing and combating racism and other forms of discrimination.
“I want to end with something to the Muslim Students Association. Why don’t you spend all the energy that you’ve devoted toward me to exposing…the men and women who poison the minds of children as impressionable teachers. Don’t you think you should go after them instead of me?”
On the evening of September 15, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, clad in a black leather jacket, grey slacks and cork wedge heels, stood in front of more than 300 lecture attendants, occasionally pushing her brown-frame glasses to the top of her head.
Delivered in her soft, childlike voice, the words almost sounded like a lullaby. Almost.
Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born activist and writer whose repertoire of issues spans feminism, female genital mutilation, atheism and Islam, stood behind the podium on the stage of SSS 114. The event was titled “Clash of Civilizations: Islam and the West,” but Hirsi Ali was intent on addressing more than just religion.
Tonight, she said, is about free speech. Tonight is about hearing opinions we don’t want to hear. Tonight is about the central purpose of a university.
The audience members—a significant number of whom were alumni whose 30th, 40th, perhaps even 50th reunions had already passed—responded with a booming round of applause. They—especially the members of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program, which was hosting the event—may not have agreed with Hirsi Ali on abolishing state funding of religious schools, legalizing drugs or increasing access to abortion. But on this, they stood firmly behind her.
Five days before, members of the Yale community had opened their inboxes to a letter from the MSA expressing wariness about this very talk.
“Our concern is that Ms. Hirsi Ali is being invited to speak as an authority on Islam despite the fact that she does not hold the credentials to do so,” the email read. “[W]e are hopeful that the discussion is constructive and that Ms. Hirsi Ali speaks only to her personal experiences and professional expertise.”
But on this evening there stood Hirsi Ali, speaking on not just her personal experience, but also Islam’s role on the world stage.
Less than a month before, President Peter Salovey had stood behind a similar podium in a similarly-adorned lecture hall to deliver his freshman address. He made clear where he and his administration stood on the issue of free speech.
Much of his speech had been written 40 years before, in the wake of free speech incidents involving segregationist George Wallace, former commander of the US Armed Forces in Vietnam William Westmoreland, and eugenics proponent William Shockley.
“‘The history of intellectual growth and discovery,” he said, quoting directly from the Woodward Report, “clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable and challenge the unchallengeable.”
His blue robes draped by his sides, his mustache absent, and his eyes bespectacled, he signaled his vision for speech and expression in the years to come.
“I recognize that all of us here…might also like to live in a campus community where nothing provocative and hurtful is ever said to anyone. And that is the part that I cannot—and should not—promise you. For if we are not willing to be shocked, then we may not be allowing ourselves to be open to life-changing ideas—ideas that rock our worlds.”
* * *
In May of 1974, a team of distinguished professors and scholars, headed by the preeminent American historian C. Vann Woodward, convened to craft a document that would articulate the University’s policies on free expression.
The resulting 51-page Woodward Report was brought to President Brewster’s desk on December 23 of that year. The University released it in January 1975, under the title, “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale.”
The report was clear. Yale would staunchly defend free speech on campus—something it arguably hadn’t done so well twelve years before.
In 1963, the Yale Political Union invited George Wallace, of block-the-schoolhouse-doorway segregationist fame, to speak. Then Mayor of New Haven Richard Lee wasn’t happy. His eyes set on a fifth term as mayor of a predominantly African-American city, he was adamant against Wallace setting foot in New Haven.
“The Mayor of New Haven…told Brewster that he feared there would be terrible riots [if he did come],” Sam Chauncey, who served as special assistant to President Brewster throughout his 14-year tenure, said. But, Chauncey continued, “I don’t believe there would have been terrible riots.”
Brewster bent, and the YPU revoked the invitation.
“It was a question of a naïve administrator under great pressure from the Mayor of New Haven, and maybe others,” Chauncey said.
Brewster had fallen into his position by default; the Yale charter calls for the Provost to become acting President if the President dies in office. He had only spent a year in the Provost’s office before President Whitney Griswold’s death, and was acutely aware of how his decisions might impact his own future—he was the leading candidate to become President of the University.
But, Chauncey said, Brewster realized he had made a mistake after the fact, and he was willing to admit it.
The Wallace incident was the first free speech incident Brewster confronted as President, but it was later, more heated incidents that would lead to the creation of the Woodward Report.
According to Nathaniel Zelinsky ’13, who won the Kaplan Prize for his senior essay focusing on free speech and co-education in the Brewster years, the President’s first disruption came not from an outside speaker, but from within the University.
In 1969, Yale fired a black dining hall worker for being, according to a News article on November 4, 1969, “uncooperative” with students, almost all of whom were white. In response, sixty students, affiliated with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), occupied what is now the L-Dub basement post office, and what was then the dining hall manager’s office, demanding that the dining hall worker be brought back.
Administrators had little precedent for this type of situation; Chauncey would later note, “we were kind of winging it.”
He and Provost Charles Taylor (Brewster was away on vacation) ended up suspending forty-seven students who refused to leave.
* * *
In 1972, then Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland, who had led the US armed forces throughout the peak years of the Vietnam War, including during the Tet Offensive, was invited by the YPU to speak.
Westmoreland’s visit soon became more than an issue of free speech.
“His staff was very concerned about his life. Not free speech, but whether he might be killed,” said Chauncey, who was in charge of securing the event in his role as special assistant to the President.
Prior to the event, the administration, worried that some might go off the rails, reached an agreement with students. Protesters could stand with placards at the back of the Law School auditorium, where the event was to be held, but they could not speak.
The administration had worked out other details, too.
“I had arranged for a very large number of plain-clothed policemen to be in the room, in case there was a real coup,” Chauncey recalled. “In case someone pulled out a gun to shoot him.”
Asked if he actually believed someone might attempt to assassinate Westmoreland, Chauncey delivered a history lesson.
“This was a period in American history when there were the Weathermen bombings,” he said, referring to the Weather Underground Organization, a radical left group that formed from Students for a Democratic Society, and delivered a slew of bombings, mostly to government buildings, from the early to mid-70s.
The administration made sure that, if anything were to happen, Westmoreland could escape as quickly as possible—they had chosen the Law School auditorium for its layout.
“You could get from the podium to the [off-stage] door in two seconds, and be out of the room. And behind that door were more police officers ready to open it and bring him out,” Chauncey said.
But at the last moment, right before Westmoreland was to make his way from dinner at Mory’s with the YPU Party chairmen to the auditorium to deliver his speech, either he or his security team balked. To this day, Chauncey doesn’t know what led to the last-minute 180 degree shift. He just knows that a lieutenant approached him as he waited in the YLS auditorium to inform him that General Westmoreland would no longer be speaking. He was afraid for his life.
* * *
I think back to Hirsi Ali. Police officers adorned SSS 114, posted at every entrance. But no bags were searched, no attendants escorted out, and although the side doors stayed tightly sealed until the moment she walked on stage, it seemed more of a toying with suspense than a true security concern. And no one, inside or out, went as far as to protest.
I ask Chauncey why this is.
He pauses. I listen to silence on the other end of the line.
“I think students today are incapable of outrage,” he says. Incapable of outrage, but not apathetic, he specifies.
“They are deeply concerned about social issues, but I don’t think they can act on their concern,” he says. “They’re paralyzed,” either because they are worried about not getting a job with a black mark on their record, or because they believe they aren’t informed enough to insert themselves into the dialogue.
While Chauncey seems more worried about a lack of outrage with social and policy issues, Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History, who has also spoken at several Buckley events, worries about a lack of concern for upholding free speech principles themselves.
“In the earlier time,” he says, “there was a division of opinion among the students, but there was a pretty strong sense of the opinion of [the importance of] freedom of speech.”
Today, Kagan thinks there are more student groups willing to suppress the speech they don’t like.
“And my feeling is that the great mass of students are prepared to accept that,” he says.
* * *
The tipping point came in 1974, just one year before the Woodward Report was released. The Conservative Party of the YPU asked William Shockley— co-inventor of the transistor radio, for which he won the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics, and a believer in eugenics—to speak in front of the Union
Unlike Westmoreland, Shockley made it into the building. But he was never able to speak. For over an hour, shouting students drowned out his words. Shockley walked out of SSS, defeated.
* * *
Placed side by side, the Shockley and Westmoreland events pose an important question: Is there a difference between those who simply espouse beliefs—Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for instance—and those who have participated in acts that some members of the community find reprehensible, like Westmoreland?
Shockley had made his pro-eugenics beliefs known to the world, but he wasn’t implementing any eugenics policies. Meanwhile, Westmoreland had served as Commander of the Armed Forces, making decisions that impacted the lives of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese civilians every day. Shockley was a speaker, but Westmoreland was a doer.
When members of the Rutgers and Smith communities made clear to former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde that they were unwelcome on their respective campuses, they were operating on the “doer” principle. Rice, they said, was responsible for the War in Iraq, and Lagarde for the “strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”
In November 2013, Brown University students invoked the same principle. New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who had implemented the city’s highly controversial stop-and-frisk policy, came to speak, but student protesters shut him down, standing up inside the lecture hall and heckling him.
Signs outside the event read, “Stop police brutality,” “Brown is complicit,” and “Ray(cist) Kelly.”
I asked Salovey: for the purposes of honoring free speech on campus, should we differentiate between the Shockleys and the Westmorelands, the speakers and the doers?
Not in University policy, he said. To Salovey, the distinction isn’t meaningful enough to merit different administrative responses.
Asked how he would respond if Bashar al-Assad, responsible for the deaths of thousands of Syrians, were invited to campus, he demurred from the extreme example, but reinforced his position.
“Let’s say a group on campus wants to invite a mass murderer to speak,” he explained, sitting in his office on the first floor of Woolsey Hall. “I might question that group’s judgment. I might even question why they would like to dignify that person by giving them a platform. But if they invite that person, and they do it in a way that the event would be safe for all involved…it would be inappropriate for me to try to pressure the group to disinvite a speaker.”
According to William F. Buckley Program, Jr. President Rich Lizardo ’15 and the Program’s founder and executive director Lauren Noble ’11, pressuring another group to disinvite a speaker is exactly what the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) did.
“The MSA asked me if the Buckley Program would reconsider our invitation,” Lizardo said.
From the outset, Lizardo said, he made clear that revoking the invitation was a non-starter. The MSA then presented other options, he said: the first that Hirsi Ali be limited to speaking about personal experiences, and the second that other guests—who they deemed more qualified—be invited to speak alongside her.
To Lizardo, the second request was downright disrespectful.
“If the initial invitation is for a lecture [and not a debate], you have to stick with that,” he said.
Lizardo was also bothered by the very premise of their requests.
“It was somewhat uncalled for,” he said, “for another organization to be making demands of us.”
But MSA President Ahmad Aljobeh ’16 denies ever asking the Program to disinvite Hirsi Ali. As to asking the Buckley Program to invite other speakers, and limit Hirsi Ali’s comments to her personal experience, Aljobeh said, “The MSA is exercising our own freedom of speech.”
* * *
To many Yale students, the same is true of Reverend Bruce Shipman, former priest-in-charge of the Episcopal Church at Yale who made headlines with his response to an August 20 op-ed in The New York Times.
A month ago, Deborah E. Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, wrote a piece about rising anti-semitism in Europe. The crux of her opinion: People who worry we are on the “cusp of another Holocaust” are wrong. But people who aren’t worried at all about anti-semitism are also wrong.
“This is not another Holocaust, but it’s bad enough,” she concludes.
In response to the op-ed, Rev. Shipman, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, wrote a letter to the editor stating that there is a relationship between increased anti-semitism in Europe and Israel’s policies in Gaza. In what would become his most controversial point, he wrote, “the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israel’s patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question.”
Two weeks later, Shipman resigned from his post because, as he told the Yale Herald, his board simply wouldn’t stand behind him throughout the onslaught of criticism. (Ian Douglas, bishop of Connecticut and president of the board of governors for the Episcopal Church at Yale, counters that it had more to do with “institutional dynamics” within the Church.)
Feelings ran high on both sides. Some students said the comments justified anti-semitism. Others said they showed a complete inability to separate the policies of the Israeli government from the lives of millions of diasporic Jews.
But other students felt Shipman was simply speaking up for the plight of Palestinians, broaching a taboo that others have been too reticent to touch. They didn’t believe the letter condoned anti-semitism.
Two days after the Times letter, on August 28, Shipman followed up with another one, this time to the Yale Daily News.
“If I seemed to suggest in my letter that only Jews, who actively oppose present Israeli policies have a right to feel safe, that was not my intention nor is it my belief,” he wrote. “Personal safety and protection by the rule of law is a fundamental right. Nothing done in Israel or Palestine justified the disturbing rise in anti-semitism in Europe or elsewhere.”
Exactly a week after the second letter ran, Shipman resigned.
For Chauncey, the Shipman incident called up memories of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. At that time, Chauncey was leading the charge on co-education and increasing the number of minority students at Yale. Yale’s affiliated organizations—what Chauncey calls “parasitic organizations” because they wouldn’t exist if Yale did not—Mory’s, the Yale Club of New York City, and secret societies, refused to let women and African-Americans within their folds.
Chauncey literally laid down the law, recruiting Yale Law School faculty to sue Mory’s, which had thus far refused to even talk about admitting women. If these organizations wanted to maintain any affiliation with the University, they had to abide by its principles, he said. (After being threatened with losing its liquor license, Mory’s began admitting women in 1972, three years after the University had gone co-ed.)
He views the Shipman controversy as analogous.
“Here’s the Episcopal church, apparently letting a man go because he said something they didn’t like,” he said, emphasizing that, because of conflicting accounts, he doesn’t know the real reason why Shipman resigned. “From my point of view, there can be no distinction: If a person is part of Yale University, they have a right to free speech.”
In a follow-up conversation, he clarified. “I’m not saying that the Episcopal church shouldn’t fire a priest that says something that’s inconsistent with their values,” he said. “But if the organization’s values are inconsistent with Yale’s values, then there’s a question.”
To Deborah Lipstadt, the Emory professor who wrote the op-ed, free speech is a “smokescreen” in this case.
“[Shipman] is the representative of a major organization associated with one of the major universities in the US,” she said. “It’s not that he’s not allowed to say [what he said]; it’s that you take responsibility for it.”
She offered another example: if someone said that rape on college campuses simply wouldn’t happen if “‘those girls [that’s usually the language that’s used] didn’t wear those short skirts, or go to frat houses, or get drunk,’” or that Michael Brown wouldn’t have been murdered if “‘black people didn’t wear their pants around their ankles, and if they would just shape up and behave,’ we wouldn’t think twice about firing them.”
To her, along with focusing on whether a person had the right to say what they said, we can’t forget to ask ourselves: “Do you want someone ministering or counseling to students who makes these kinds of simplistic and glib comparisons?”
She tied her thoughts back to former Harvard President Larry Summers’ comments on women in the sciences. (In 2005, Summers suggested that the underrepresentation of women in the sciences could be due to a “different availability of aptitude at the high end.” After a no-confidence vote by Harvard faculty, he resigned.)
“If you choose to be the President of Harvard or the Episcopal Chaplain at Yale, you’ve got to be a little more careful about what you say,” Lipstadt said.
Leaning back in a swivel chair on the second floor of the Slifka Center, where she has been invited to give a talk on rising anti-semitism in Europe, and flashing colored polka dot socks (“I need some happiness for an otherwise dour topic,” she said), she concluded by quoting the Talmud.
“Wise people, be careful with your words.”
* * *
In the stifling humidity of Woolsey Hall, Salovey, looking out on the faces of 1,361 new students, drew to a close.
He had acknowledged the difficulty of fostering “friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect” while listening to views we find deplorable. But, he said, if we value the former over the unfettered exchange of words, we risk sacrificing the very purpose of a university.
Programs with “Bright College Years” lyrics doubled as fans, and a colorful cadre of robes speckled the stage. Veteran administrators, along with a slew of the president’s newest hires—freshmen in their own right—stood immediately behind Salovey.
The president— his voice at once exuberant and earnest—concluded.
“Isn’t the opportunity to engage with [life-changing ideas, ideas that rock our worlds]—whether to embrace them or dispute them—the reason why you chose Yale?”
Oliver Wendell Holmes is known today for many things: his decades of service on the Supreme Court, his discerning analogies (fire in a crowded theater, anyone?), his magnificent mustache (rivaling that of the almighty Salovey). But his greatest legacy transcends these popular images, found instead in his trailblazing defense of free speech.
He wasn’t always such a civil libertarian. In fact, for the first 78 years of his remarkable life, Holmes was of a decidedly authoritarian bent. He trusted the government and granted it broad powers in a way that, today, would seem absurd. Could a policeman be fired for merely expressing his political views? Yup. Could the government imprison someone for expressing these political beliefs? Yeah, probably. Was there a right to public expression of controversial opinions, beliefs, or profanity? Nope. Could the government suppress the writings of someone trying to criticize it? Absolutely.
So what happened? Well, Holmes changed his mind. As law professor Thomas Healy describes in “The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind — and Changed the History of Free Speech in America,” a series of chance meetings and the relentless arguing of his friends convinced Holmes that he had been wrong. So in 1919, in Abrams v. United States, Holmes wrote a dissenting opinion that changed the course of American (and perhaps world) history.
Before Holmes’s dissent in Abrams, which would soon be adopted by a majority of the Court and become firmly ingrained in the American ethos, the right to free speech was narrow, failing to include the right to dissent that we as Americans pride today. In 1915, Holmes himself wrote a unanimous decision that upheld the conviction of a newspaper owner who wrote in support of nude swimming in areas far from the public view — scandalous stuff.
Then, in 1918, a young Russian-American anarchist named Jacob Abrams, along with four others, tossed leaflets criticizing America’s involvement in World War I from the roof of a New York office building. Abrams was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 20 years in prison for bringing the government into “contempt, scorn, contumely, and disrepute” and for attempting to hinder the war effort.
Meanwhile, Holmes was on his way to his New England summer home when he happened upon a young New York judge with the delightful and erudite name of Learned Hand. Hand, nervously, confronted Holmes about the Abrams case (and a few others) and raised the idea that the defendants’ speech might be covered by the First Amendment. Holmes quickly dismissed Hand and returned to his seat.
But, according to Healy, that chance encounter spurred Holmes to begin talking to many of his friends about Hand’s then radical idea that controversial speech should be protected. These friends pushed back against Holmes’s conception of free speech, and urged him to consider it from the perspective of the minority. A year of lobbying and cajoling eventually paid off when Holmes published his dissent in Abrams.
The friends who changed Holmes’s mind were all bright young men nearly 50 years Holmes’s junior. The childless Holmes maintained intimate friendships — almost erotic in their closeness — with several of the brightest young intellectuals of the day, including radical Harvard professors Felix Frankfurter (later on the Supreme Court) and Harold Laski, Rhode Island brahman Zechariah Chafee, and Hand (who would later become one of the most prominent lower court judges in American history).
Healy goes to great pains to reconstruct the correspondence and meetings between Holmes and these men, and to trace Holmes’s cautious evolution. Holmes was neither a radical nor an ideologue, and his shift on free speech was tentative. Yet by the time Abrams v. United States was handed down, Holmes was ready to write the now immortal words: speeches and writings cannot be restricted or denied “unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.”
There are, to be sure, flaws with “The Great Dissent,” Healy’s first book. There seems to be an exultant sense of inevitability with Holmes’s decisions, when, in fact, things could have gone the other way. The United States has the broadest definition of free speech in the developed world — few other countries would include wearing Nazi paraphernalia in public schools or burning the nation’s flag as protected speech. By ignoring the chance that history could have gone the other way, Healy ignores the fragility of rights we now take for granted.
Constitutional protections should never be dismissed as inevitable, and it is terrifying that the most controversial decisions of the day will often be decided by a single aging man in a silly robe. From Oliver Wendell Holmes to Anthony Kennedy, the lesson of “The Great Dissent” seems to hold up. The arc of history is a delicate thing. It so often comes down to chance, folly, and one person’s whim.