Free Speech at Yale and The William F. Buckley Program’s Sixth Annual Gala
“Does the Omni Hotel count as a safe space? I guess we’re safely off campus.”
Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis opened his keynote address at the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program’s Sixth Annual Gala with a quip about campus tensions in the days preceding Halloween.
“I think Yale has become somewhat of a laughingstock, but hats off to you guys for fighting that tide,” he remarked over peals of laughter.
DeSantis’s jab at college safe spaces appeared welcome in the lavish ballroom of the Omni Hotel. After an evening of chatter over smooth jazz, fried oysters, and Manhattans, attendees settled in at their dinner tables to listen to Desantis speak. This year’s conference, which addressed “The Future of the American Party System,” included panel discussions earlier in the day exploring the American party system’s history, from America’s birth to the present, as well as predictions for the system in the coming years.
“Conservatives need to dedicate themselves to restoring a semblance of constitutional government,” said DeSantis.
Though the Buckley Program is not a Republican organization—its mission is to “promote intellectual diversity at Yale”—its guest speakers overwhelmingly represent the right end of the political spectrum. On a majority-liberal campus, providing an outlet for conservative discourse fulfills the organization’s mission.
“This year’s forum brought an interesting intellectual viewpoint to Yale. I thought it important to hear Republican attitudes toward the current election cycle, as most of the conversation at Yale tends to be focused on the Democratic party,” said Brigitte Fink ’20 in an interview with The Politic.
In his speech, DeSantis went on to criticize judicial activism and the growth of the bureaucracy in American government. Though he did not provide direct solutions for the discontent felt by many with establishment politics, DeSantis appeared to plead with his audience for a rebirth of constitutionalism.
“Right now, we have a lot of popular impulses that are dominating. These aren’t necessarily good or bad, but they’re impulses. It’s hard not to look at Washington and not feel some of the frustration felt by these people,” he said, nodding to both Sanders’ and Trump’s followings over the past year. “Six of the ten wealthiest counties of our country are in Washington DC. This is all the growth of government; government picks winners and losers…Washington has shown consistent contempt for the American people.”
“We can reduce the power of lobbying by reducing the power of government. Conservatives really need to get to work finding representatives that are dedicated to these foundational principles,” he maintained.
A major theme throughout both DeSantis’s speech and the introduction given him by his ex-baseball coach, John Stuper, was the dismal state of American politics. Both repeatedly blasted the left for the direction the country has been heading. DeSantis claimed that “the vitality of society is being stifled.”
“By my count I have only had three liberals on my team. I’ve never actually cut a player for being a liberal, but there’s always a first time,” joked Stuper.
Far more engaging than the speakers that evening were the Buckley Fellows themselves. Some criticized DeSantis for failing to address the American party system in general, and many emphasized the Program’s core values as distinct from the content of his talk.
“Personally, I didn’t buy it. I believe the Supreme Court is justified to make the kinds of decisions it’s been making. Judge Garland should be heard by the Senate. DeSantis just gave a stump speech,” expressed Paul Han ’20, a first year Buckley Fellow, in an interview with The Politic.
“Conservatism is really about opportunity for all,” Han continued. “When liberals denigrate conservatism by calling us elitists, or suggesting we don’t care about the poor, they’re not understanding what we stand for. Yet the lack of the Republican establishment’s response to Trump early on has done nothing but confirm this liberal perception of conservatism.”
In the six years since its founding, the Buckley Program has grown to become one of the largest undergraduate organizations on campus. Its relatively brief history at Yale has not been without controversy, a fact indicative of escalating campus tensions between conflicting political ideologies.
“If there is a perspective or opinion that we see isn’t being represented on campus, we try to bring in speakers that provide this perspective,” Joshua Altman ‘17, president of the Buckley Program, told The Politic. Such a cause has evoked mixed responses on campus.
Last year’s Fifth Annual Conference was confronted by a large crowd of student protesters in response to a speaker’s racially insensitive remark. One fellow claimed to have been spat on by a demonstrator. A number of student groups protested the Program’s decision in 2014 to invite Ayaan Hirsi Ali to campus, who is an outspoken and often polarizing critic of Islam.
Tim Rawlinson ‘19, head of the Tory Party at Yale and Buckley Fellow, underlined the importance of bringing a diverse range of voices, including inflammatory ones, to address the Yale community.
“[The Buckley Program] is trying to allow views that may be unpalatable or different to be heard by students on campus. That’s a really valuable mission, whether or not you agree or disagree with those views.”
Certainly, a large organization that prides itself in engaging with, and even embracing, conservative leaders is less than common at Yale, where, according to a recent YDN survey, only 11.86% of respondents consider themselves conservative or very conservative. The same YDN survey revealed that conservative views are considered largely unwelcome at Yale, and that the majority of students feel intimidated to share beliefs that aren’t held by their professors.
“As a liberal from a conservative area, coming to Yale was a complete reversal. At home, I often felt outnumbered and wasn’t as comfortable expressing my views. Here, I’m in the majority. But I see my experience at home in that of conservatives on campus. I know how it feels,” Sarina Xu ’20 told The Politic.
Lauren Lee ’20, a first year fellow, spoke candidly on the Buckley Program as a force against university self-censorship.
“I made a commitment to myself that I wouldn’t censor myself here,” Lee said firmly.
In the wake of the Huffington Post’s publication of an op-ed by Erika Christakis, former lecturer at Yale, in which she criticized the the university’s growing intolerance of certain ways of thinking or speaking, Lee also reflected on the importance of recognizing free speech as something both liberals and conservatives alike should protect.
“But I don’t view free speech as purely a conservative value. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. I think the real conflict is over what free speech is. The Buckley Program is a proponent of the type of free speech that I like to see.”
Several Buckley Fellows expressed mistrust of Yale’s news media outlets, citing instances of misquoting or the community’s tendency to depict the program in a negative light. Of the eight students The Politic asked for interviews, three declined for these or related reasons.
“What really concerns me is that there’s this moving away from cordial discourse that I think is crucial, and a lot of closing of minds on both sides,” Lee disclosed.
At an institution like Yale, supposedly a beacon of “Light and Truth,” it should be concerning that there are students—of any political ideology or background—who feel uncomfortable sharing their thoughts with others. When 97% of political contributions from Yale employees are for democratic candidates, protection of the free speech beloved to conservatives may be undervalued even among faculty.
Words have consequences. I am the first to warn a male friend against mansplaining or a peer about cultural appropriation, to debate heatedly with my Republican parents about abortion rights or affirmative action, and to acknowledge that I come from a place of extraordinary privilege. I openly engage in criticism of the university and believe there is much work to be done in making it a safer, more inclusive place for minority students. I also understand that my experiences have differed vastly from others, including students of color, limiting my ability to speak to the challenges they may have faced.
In short, I am unabashedly liberal. At Yale, I feel welcomed and reaffirmed for my politics. Perhaps the real question is whether we, out of respect for this institution and for our peers, are willing to engage with those we disagree with instead of ostracizing them.
Congressman Henry Hyde said, “Free speech is meaningless unless it tolerates the speech that we hate.”
Free speech is never a license to abuse. It is a responsibility that we, as young adults, must learn to wield with care. Like any large academic institution, Yale will continue to attract individuals with views that may not always align with one another. Heated debate is inevitable. Hostility and suppression are not.
“Take Liberty University for example. The president told the school newspaper it wasn’t allowed to publish anything anti-Trump—the majority opinion at the school supported the candidate. If I were at Liberty University, I like to think I would advocate for the people who wanted to print anti-Trump content, or any content that was at odds with the mainstream. Hopefully I’d be on the side of freedom of opinion and expression no matter what,” Eli Westerman ‘18 told The Politic, emphasizing that he himself is not a Trump supporter.
A week ago, Christakis wrote: “Certain ideas are too dangerous to be heard at Yale.”
For those of us for whom Yale is both a home and a place for great growth, her criticism should read not as a condemnation, but as a challenge.