For decades, Yale has officially proclaimed freedom of expression a value hallowed above all else. But the application of free expression has an uneven history touched with dilemmas. The recent uproar over a group of Delta Kappa Epsilon pledges chanting obscene slogans about rape is just the latest in a series of struggles over speech in the last 50 years.
Yale was founded in 1701 on the denial of free expression. Faculty had to swear allegiance to a strict code of Connecticut theology. The only president ever fired was Timothy Cutler (then called rector), found guilty in 1722 of using an Anglican phrase during a commencement service.
Well into the twentieth century free expression was circumscribed by presidents and deans. James Rowland Angell, president from 1921 to 1937, believed there were "social values of greater consequence than the license of every lunatic to mount a soapbox and froth at the mouth." He blocked proposed speakers whose views offended him.
Angell retired in 1937. Provost Edgar S. Furniss '18PhD immediately wrote a landmark memorandum to the new president, Charles Seymour '08, '11PhD. Furniss said:
[We] have acquired the reputation of being biased in favor of conservative opinion on current public issues, and of using administrative authority to prevent the expression of dissent whenever this takes an advanced liberal or radical form. . . . Such an atmosphere is injurious to morale and prevents the accomplishment of our best in teaching and research.
Seymour agreed. He permitted the Communist leader Earl Browder to speak and met alumni criticism by saying the undergraduates were sophisticated enough not to be seduced by nonsense. In 1940, Seymour was an ardent interventionist on the British side in the war against Nazi Germany, but he allowed Charles Lindbergh, the nation's leading isolationist, to speak before an overflow crowd in Woolsey Hall. Seymour's successor, A. Whitney Griswold '29, '33PhD, was a strong defender of free expression in the face of McCarthyism.
Now forward to 1963, when conflict over racial equality and civil rights was bloody. In September, the Yale Political Union invited the white supremacist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, to speak. Just after Wallace accepted, four black girls were killed in the firebombing of a church in Birmingham. Kingman Brewster Jr. '41, provost and acting president following Griswold's death the previous April, feared that Wallace's presence could ignite violence in New Haven. Brewster said that his position "on free speech and on invitations to speakers was uncompromising" but that in this case he had to consider the potential consequences. He told the Political Union to withdraw the invitation.
Brewster was roundly criticized. Professor C. Vann Woodward, eminent historian of the American South, said, "The University is in danger of sacrificing principle to expediency. If the South can afford the risk of violence for the principle of Negro rights, New Haven can, too, for the principle of freedom of speech." Pauli Murray '65JSD, a courageous foe of racial segregation since the 1930s who would soon be the first black woman to earn a doctorate in law at Yale, argued that "the possibility of violence is not sufficient reason in law to prevent an individual from exercising his constitutional right."
Brewster got the message. Never again did he interfere with an invitation to a speaker.
Then came the Shockley crisis. William B. Shockley was an applied physicist at Stanford who had shared a Nobel Prize in 1956 for the development of the electronic transistor. In the 1970s he believed that "scientific" data "proved" the genetic inability of black people to meet the challenges of modern life. He called for voluntary race sterilization—in short, nonviolent self-genocide. A Yale student trio invited Shockley to debate with conservative activist William Rusher whether the federal government should subsidize sterilization. When Shockley appeared on April 15, 1974, he was shouted down by the crowd.
Brewster was appalled. He appointed a Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale under the chairmanship of his critic from 1963, Professor C. Vann Woodward. The committee submitted its report in December 1974. Here is the core:
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.
The Woodward Report was endorsed by the Yale Corporation. It remains official doctrine to this day. Shockley and Rusher were again invited to debate. They again accepted. This time protesters were urged to boycott the talk and exercise their freedom through leaflets and orderly picketing. The debate was located in Davies Auditorium, a subterranean bunker where no sunlight or noise ever penetrates. The college masters (I was one) and deans were asked to attend and keep the peace. They, some campus police and other officials, the debaters, and the three students who had invited them were alone in an empty auditorium. The debate was boredom on stilts.
The Woodward report had triumphed, but since it said nothing about freedom of expression for students dealing with each other, the campus would face a different kind of test a few years later. In April 1986, an unsigned table tent parodying Gay and Lesbian Awareness Days (GLAD) appeared on dining hall tables around the campus. It announced "Bestiality Awareness Days" with a lecture by "Professor Baaswell"—an obvious reference to Yale professor John Boswell, historian of early Christian toleration of homosexuality. The flyer was crude and offensive to gay and lesbian people and other members of the Yale community. A formal complaint was submitted to the Yale College Executive Committee by the head of the Afro-American Cultural Center and one of the organizers of GLAD. An investigation of local copy shops revealed that the author and distributor was Wayne Dick '88, a sophomore. Dick was called before the committee and charged with violating an undergraduate regulation barring "harassment, intimidation, coercion, or assault . . . against any member of the community, including sexual, racial, or ethnic harassment."
Dick said if he had offended "any member of the university community," he apologized. But was he not exercising freedom of expression? Did not the Woodward Report say that the university's obligation to "guarantee free expression" was superior to the values of "solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect"? The Executive Committee, declaring the table tent worthless and offensive, said the Woodward Report did not apply. Dick was sentenced to two years' probation.
Dick appealed to outgoing president A. Bartlett Giamatti '60, '64PhD, who said Yale would always protect free expression, but upheld the Executive Committee's decision. By this time, journalist Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice had become interested in the case. He wrote incoming president Benno C. Schmidt Jr. '63, '66LLB, and spoke with Woodward and Guido Calabresi '53, '58LLB, dean of the Law School. Schmidt waited until taking office and then looked into the case. He urged Dick to appeal. Under pressure, the Executive Committee expunged probation and the incident from Dick's record. Was the outcome a victory for free expression or for bigotry? Was it both? Or neither?
In 2009 there was an echo of Kingman Brewster's placing of prudence above free expression in 1963. Yale University Press published Jytte Klausen's Cartoons that Shook the World, an investigation of the controversy surrounding cartoons that had appeared in a Copenhagen newspaper in 2005. (See "No Middle Ground," November/December 2009.) Cartoonist Kurt Westergaard had depicted Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. For some Muslims this was blasphemy, even a capital offense. Westergaard and his newspaper were repeatedly threatened. Danish embassies were set afire. Riots allegedly tied to terrorist organizations broke out in many places. Might the Yale community and the author of the book be in danger were the cartoons in question republished? The answer at the Yale Press was yes. The book was published without the cartoons. Yale was criticized by many organizations and by the Yale Committee for a Free Press, a new group including prominent alumni. "Such censorship corrodes the intellectual freedom that is the foundation of the entire university community," said the alumni, in words Woodward would have approved.
The struggle over the meaning of the Woodward Report continues. The focus recently has been on the words and behavior of fraternity pledges. Three years ago, some members of Zeta Psi were photographed standing in front of the Women's Center holding a sign declaring "We Love Yale Sluts." Women were outraged, but the ghost of the Wayne Dick affair was in the air. No punishment was inflicted on the sign holders or the fraternity.
Then in October 2010, pledges from Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) went too far. In public where all could hear, they chanted hideous remarks making light of rape, indeed condoning it. If words could rape, here they were. As Yale explained recently, the Executive Committee did take action against DKE after finding that the fraternity "had threatened and intimidated others," as Dean Mary Miller '81PhD explained in a letter to students and faculty. The ruling suggests that the committee saw the DKE chants not simply as free speech but as threats, which courts do not usually view as protected speech.
Not surprisingly, though, the sanctions against DKE have been criticized by free speech advocates on campus and off. "When it becomes a near-crime to utter a silly or boorish chant on a college campus, everyone's freedom of speech and association is at risk," argued Weekly Standard writer Charlotte Allen in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. The ideals and limits of free expression at the university will continue to be tested.
Gaddis Smith '54, '61PhD, is the Larned Professor Emeritus of History. He is writing a history of Yale in the twentieth century.