“Bigot. You’re a bigot.” Ben Shapiro, conservative American political commentator and personality, greeted the crowd’s jeers with a smile. An auditorium filled with the press, New Haven residents, and members of the Yale community sat shoulder to shoulder as Shapiro delivered his lecture on “White Privilege, Multiculturalism, and other Leftist Myths.” Sections of his lecture were devoted to microaggressions and trigger warnings, terms that have found themselves at the forefront of campus discussion regarding free speech. By the end of the talk, he had evoked boos, insults, applause, and even a few hisses.
At a school where, according to a poll by the Yale Daily News, only 11.96 percent of students consider themselves to be conservative, even the ultra-conservative editor of the Daily News, Ben Shapiro, was given his time with the microphone. His speaking signifies the time-honored belief that the freedom to speak at Yale, whether the views expressed be popular or not, should be protected and revered. One might argue that this belief was first publicly expressed in a document that comes from none other than Yale itself.
“The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that the university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom.” So reads one of the most iconic passages of the Woodward Report.
In 1975, the Committee on Free Expression at Yale, led by prominent historian and professor, Comer Vann Woodward, released this statement as part of its report on free expression at Yale, regularly referred to as the Woodward Report. While the report set a precedent for the protection of free expression at Yale, the Committee members were also careful to report that a sense of civility must be protected. The protection of free speech would not be uncontrolled, nor would it come without consequence.
Today, our Yale campus is still filled with conversation regarding expression and speech. In addition, newer terms like “microaggressions” and “hate speech” have been added to the conversation. While some of the vocabulary is new, the discourse still revolves around the relationship between speech and courtesy.
“Shock, hurt, and anger are not consequences to be weighed lightly. No member of the community with a decent respect for others should use, or encourage others to use, slurs and epithets intended to discredit another’s race, ethnic group, religion, or sex,” the Report said.
For more than forty years now, this report has served as an unofficial constitution of free speech at Yale and as an example of free expression policy on college campuses nationwide. The committee itself was convened in 1974 following controversy surrounding a debate scheduled between physicist William Shockley and William Rusher, publisher of the National Review. Protest of the debate erupted over Shockley’s support of eugenics and racial sterilization- students disrupted the event so wholly that he never got the chance to speak. Following this event and a string of similar instances in previous years–including the scheduling of speakers like Governor George Wallace of Alabama– University president Kingman Brewster convened the committee to inspect free speech at Yale, and to shape a free expression policy based on its findings. Brewster hoped the creation of such a policy would better the University’s ability to ensure freedom of expression at Yale. The resulting report established a policy that aimed to protect free speech while also ensuring that such free discussion would be one of mutual respect between the parties involved. Such policy involved suggestions that student disruptors be suspended, and that scheduled speakers should not be cancelled by the University due to student unrest.
The committee consisted of thirteen members, including faculty, staff, students and alumni. These members were widely respected, both in and out of the academic setting. Woodward and student Steven Benner ‘76 gathered information on instances regarding free speech at Yale since the 1963 invitation of Governor George Wallace, Professor Robert Dahl Ph.D ‘40 wrote the defense of free expression and discourse, and the third section, written by Professor Harry Wellington and alumni Lloyd Cutler ‘36, made policy suggestions regarding the hosting of guest speakers on Campus and student protest and disruption.
Kingman Brewster struggled to straddle the line between pleasing those who advocated for the protection of free speech and those who believed that there must be some sort of censorship. He used the report as a means of creating a concrete guideline for free expression policy. President Salovey now faces this same challenge. While the world in which it is being applied is quite different, Salovey has asserted that he values the document’s policies and contentions. We now live in the age of internet, in a world in which students can share their voices through global portals. The avenues of protest can be quite different in 2016 than yelling at a speaker in 1963.
Yet, Salovey quoted the report heavily in his welcome address to the class of 2018, and defended free expression.
“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. And isn’t the opportunity to engage with those very ideas—whether to embrace them or dispute them—the reason why you chose Yale?” he said.
Salovey’s welcome address spoke to the idea that free expression is a pillar of an academic institution, and that open discourse is not only necessary, but beneficial to students learning. Following the events of last year, his tone seems to have changed. His more recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, published on October 17 of this year, proposes that this speech can and should be protected while also maintaining inclusivity in our community.
Rather than the “unfettered expression” that he praised in his address, the op-ed proposes the practice of free expression – with some restrictions.
He wrote, “This narrative of conflict rests on a false dichotomy, and a dangerous one at that. I believe we can uphold free expression and make our campuses more inclusive places. I also think it is critical that we do so.”
This assertion is in some ways in line with the Woodward Report, proving that the document is truly crucial to the administrative policy. Many students believe that Salovey’s op-ed must be followed with some action, and that expression is not completely free on Campus. However, a Yale Daily News Survey of 1,485 students showed that 61% of students viewed Salovey’s policy change as satisfactory following the events of last year, including controversy over the name of Calhoun College. The policy changes that were announced included funding for four cultural centers and the introduction of a five-year conference series on race, gender, and ethnicity.
At the time of the Woodward Report’s release, there was also the feeling that inclusivity on campus should be respected.
“The emphasis at the time was that this meant that there was a still a responsibility to be nice to each other. Civility is certainly a virtue. You don’t have to like the people, you just have to listen – there was that sense,” said Professor William Summers, who sat on the faculty in ’75 and had students of his own who protested controversial speakers on campus. “Today as well, people have the right to say what they want, they don’t have the right to compel you,” he said.
Issues surrounding free speech on a college campus are not the same as they were in ’74. While there is still discussion of racism, politics and religion, the culture around protest and expression have changed.
Nathaniel Zelinsky ‘13 LAW ‘18 has a theory about this change.
“Folks right now are willing to protest things that are innocuous by any standard,” he said. “The values of free speech haven’t changed. What’s changed is that students today are more censorship happy.”
As an institution, Yale has been successful in protecting the academic freedom of professors to teach what they deem relevant in the classroom, said Summers, who joined Yale’s faculty in ’68.
Summers remarked that Yale is particularly good at ensuring his freedom to teach what he wishes, especially in comparison to some of the Universities that employ his colleagues, where it is more common for curriculum to be censored based on what the administration deems to be acceptable or appropriate. In addition to free speech, this academic freedom is another form of expression highly valued at a university.
Both Summers and Zelinsky remarked that the type of speech used today is in some ways of a different variety than it was in ‘75. Today, in an academic setting, speech can have the power of actions. Much of this is the result of Title IX.
Signed into the education amendment section title IX in 1972, Title IX states that, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
However, Title IX also has language that affirms speech to be a form of action– like in the case of sexual harassment. Though signed into law before the publication of the report, universities have been pushing to implement the law more fully in recent years.
As the university must now enforce the standards set forth by the law, they must also enforce some censorship of speech. When a form of expression has created what the University deems to be a violent or hostile environment, the school has a legal obligation to investigate the circumstances regarding what was said or done.
These standards refer to speech as an act, which, according to Summers, is a somewhat novel idea. While he says that a students are similarly active in exercising these freedoms, today “speech is not just words and ideas.”
Regardless of various viewpoints on the limits of free speech, there seems to be some consensus regarding guest speakers on campus. The Woodward report assures that speakers will not be disinvited from events due to their ideas or background. Salovey has reaffirmed this policy, and has found agreement and support from Zelinsky, who remarked that “everyone is robbed when someone is censored.” While a speaker may be controversial or offensive to some, allowing them to speak may be viewed by the majority of the campus as beneficial.
So, Ben Shapiro may spew his microaggressions and outright offenses, and if they wish, students may issue trigger warnings. After all, they are also a form of free speech. At a time in history in which much is changing –politics, culture, technology– there is a never ending stream of expression to be heard, seen and absorbed. As a result, Yale has seen conflict and discord. Yet, Yale has also seen resolution and progress through this discourse. A diverse and bright campus means diversity in thought, and as President Salovey has said, “The most effective way to combat speech you don’t like is with speech.”