Yale President Urges Freshmen to Defend Free Expression

August 25, 2014

Peter Salovey, Yale University's president, used his welcoming speech to freshmen on Saturday to encourage them to respect free expression, particularly in the context of an academic environment. "In the last year or two, we have seen more than the usual number of events on college and university campuses across this country in which the freedom to express ideas has been threatened. Invitations to provocative speakers have been withdrawn; politicians, celebrities, and even university presidents invited to deliver commencement addresses have -- under pressure -- declined to speak to graduates; student protesters have had their signs destroyed by other members of a campus community," Salovey said. "In the most troubling of these 'free speech' incidents, speakers of various political persuasions have been shouted down and rendered unable to deliver remarks to campus groups who had invited them. Although we have not seen these kinds of episodes at Yale in recent decades, it is important on occasions like this one to remind ourselves why unfettered expression is so essential on a university campus.

Salovey recounted how Yale in the past responded to an incident in 1974 in which a speaker (William B. Shockley, the physicist who become a eugenics advocate who suggested that black population growth was a problem) was shouted down. After the incident, Yale appointed the historian C. Vann Woodward to lead a panel that produced a report affirming the importance of protecting free expression -- even ideas such as Shockley's that angered many people.

In his address, Salovey closed by saying: "[T]he right to free expression does not relieve us of the obligation to think before we speak. That obligation is a responsibility that we willingly assume as members of a community where mutual respect and caring are salient values. Nonetheless, I recognize that all of us here, in different ways, might also like to live in a campus community where nothing provocative and hurtful is ever said to anyone. And that is the part that I cannot -- nor should not -- promise you. 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?"

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