Lux et veritas (but not necessarily respect)

4 Oct

“The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable… If a university is a place for knowledge, it is also a special kind of small society. Yet it is not primarily a fellowship, a club, a circle of friends, a replica of the civil society outside it. Without sacrificing its central purpose, it cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect” (Yale University, 1974). 

In 1974, the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale articulated this position on freedom of speech at the university, following an incident when students disrupted a debate about whether “voluntary race sterilization” (recommended by Stanford Professor William Shockley, who claimed proof that black people were genetically unable “to meet the challenges of modern life”) should be subsidized by the federal government


Yale concluded that it was paramount for an educational institution to cultivate free and critical thinking. Censorship based on particular beliefs or morals, criticism, offensiveness or even fear of violence was unjustified. And so the debate about subsidized sterilization was rescheduled. (However, the sanctioned protest outside ended up being the main event; only the three students who organized the debate and a cadre of adults marshalled to keep the peace attended the debate.)

Fast forward to 1986 when Wayne Dick, an undergraduate, parodied Gay and Lesbian Awareness Days with dining hall table tents announcing “Bestiality Awareness Days.” When Dick was charged under a regulation prohibiting “harassment [or] intimidation… against any member of the community, including sexual, racial, or ethnic harassment,” he defended himself, offering an apology if (sidebar: if??) he had offended anyone and citing Yale’s 1974 doctrine on free speech: didn’t his right to free speech supercede any valuation or expectation of “friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect”? Although he was initially sentenced to two years’ probation, Dick’s sentence was eventually overturned, and the incident was expunged from his record.

Since then, Yale’s position on free speech has been revisited as students continue to test the limits. Most recently:

  • In 2008, pledges of the Zeta Psi fraternity posed as a group, blocking the entrance to the Yale Women’s Center, with a sign that read, “We Love Yale Sluts.”
  • In 2009, students circulated a “pre-season scouting report” e-mail, rating incoming freshmen women by the number of drinks a man would need to consume in order to sleep with her.
  • In 2010, Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity pledges marched across Old Campus, where most freshmen are housed, chanting, “No means yes! Yes means anal!”

University policy, still based on the outcomes of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, continues to uphold free speech while drawing a line at making threats (which have traditionally not enjoyed legal protection).

What strikes me in reading about Yale’s handling of these incidents is their institutional clarity. While devaluing civility and mutual respect makes me uncomfortable (I want both freedom of speech and respect), at least the university is transparent about their values, and honest about their priorities. These days, lists of core values are commonplace. And most of us who have created a list would insist that everything on it is equally important to us. But in actuality, isn’t there a core to the core? Isn’t there one value or belief that trumps everything else? And if not, to what do we refer, in those messiest of dilemmas, to guide us to an intentional, mission-aligned decision?

Whether or not you agree with Yale’s discernment regarding freedom of speech on campus, at least you know where the University stands. And hopefully, the University is willing to inspect its terra firma every now and again.

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