Free speech report sees little impactLeave a Comment
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.