Taking a Stand for Free Speech

Dozens of Yale faculty members issue open letter decrying substance and tone of recent discussions of a controversial email -- and urging civil discussions of difficult issues.

December 1, 2015

Several dozen Yale University faculty members on Monday issued an open letter defending the right of free speech, and offering support for Erika and Nicholas Christakis, whom some students want ousted from their positions leading a residential college.

The statement is a reflection of frustration of some faculty members at Yale and elsewhere that the current round of campus protests on racial issues -- while raising important and valid issues -- has also included stances that they view as counter to principles of free speech. They argue that the campus protest movement's response to an email on Halloween costumes sent by Erika Christakis, associate master of a residential college at Yale, is one of those stances.

That email came in the week leading up to Halloween, when officials at many campuses (including Yale) were advising students to avoid costumes or party themes with ethnic or racial overtones so as to not offend minority students, who in years past have objected to many such costumes and themes, such as the use of blackface, or parties with "ghetto" themes.

In her email, Christakis said, “Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense -- and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes -- I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people's capacity -- in your capacity -- to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?”

That set off calls for her to be dismissed, with many saying she belittled the pain felt by minority students when their backgrounds are stereotyped or mocked. Further, in an incident that captured widespread attention, Nicholas Christakis, master of the college and a professor at Yale, was screamed at (with an expletive) when he tried to engage students in discussion about the issue. Some students have called for him to be removed as college master as well.

The open letter does not offer support of the views of Erika Christakis. Rather, it says that she not only had a right to express herself, but a right to have her views discussed without being accused of racism.

"Free speech of course includes the right to express opinions that are opposed to what may generally be termed liberal or progressive values, but that is not the issue in the current situation," the open letter says. "The email that Erika Christakis sent to the Silliman [residential college] community did not express support for racist expressions, but rather focused primarily on the question of whether monitoring and criticizing such expression should be done in a top-down manner, when in fact the community involved is a group of college students. One can differ with her suggestion that administrative bodies should not play such an oversight role at Yale, but the suggestion itself clearly does not constitute support for racist expressions."

The letter goes on to say, "We are deeply troubled that this modest attempt to ask people to consider the issue of self-monitoring vs. bureaucratic supervision has been misinterpreted, and in some cases recklessly distorted, as support for racist speech; and hence as justification for demanding the resignation of our colleagues from their posts at Silliman."

Yale and colleges in general, the letter says, need to be places where differences of opinion on all subjects may be discussed civilly.

"A crucial component of free expression is the possibility of open and civil discussions, without vilifying those who disagree with one’s own viewpoint. Our support for these principles is not in conflict with opposition to racism and respect for diversity," the letter says.

Noting the commitments of Nicholas Christakis, who "worked for many years as a hospice doctor, making house visits to underserved populations in Chicago," the letter adds that "progressive values and social justice are not advanced by scapegoating those who share those values."

It is unclear to what extent the letter will shift debate at Yale. On social media Monday night some were praising it. Others were noting that a disproportionate share of those signing the letter are in the physical and biological sciences, disciplines that tend to skew a bit less to the left than does the typical college professor. (Some wrote, incorrectly, that the letter was not signed by anyone in the humanities. A professor of Spanish and a professor of philosophy are among those who signed.)

One Yale student tweeted his disagreement with the letter this way:


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