Yale versus the First Amendment?

Rejecting Nick Christakis' call for dialogue at Yale
The Atlantic headline is damning: "The New Intolerance of Student Activism." It's wrong to tar all student activism with such a label, but journalist Conor Friedersdorf is right to worry about the implications of recent student protest at Yale. Call it a reverse 1960s—Yale students sided with university administration against a professor who supported their right to free speech. Yalies need to take a course that teaches them that close reading is, generally speaking, a more intelligent way to form moral positions than knee-jerk reactions. Then they should sign up for a US history class.

The truly sad part is that both sides in the dispute were (sort of) right. It unfolded just before Halloween, when 13 Yale administrators sent a letter to students with guidelines on Halloween costumes. I can see that. There's not a college communications office in the land that wants to field queries from the press about idiotic white kids who thought it would be "cool" or "funny" to slather on burnt cork and pretend to be African-American rappers. Ditto those who might dress as campesinos or Native Americans. If the letter had taken the tone of an advisory rather than official guidelines, it might have been viewed as sagacious. It would also have helped if the audience consisted of minors, not young adults.

Enter Erika Christakis, a lecturer in early childhood education, who noted that Yale students are supposed to be viewed as adults. In an email that could hardly have been more respectful in tone, Christakis raised a question of utmost importance: free speech. She began by asserting she had no desire to "trivialize" the issues raised by the administration or its desire to avoid "hurt and offense." She clearly stated, "I applaud those goals," but she went on to ponder the implications of "an institutional (bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students."

Christakis' mistake was to frame her well-considered question in the language of her field of childhood development. She raised questions about when "the statute of limitations" expires on the boundaries between fantasy and provocation. She admitted she did not know; hence she was uncomfortable imposing standards on others. She correctly, but impoliticly suggested that the maturation process occasionally involved young people being "a little bit obnoxious." (Is there anyone who has been around college students who has not observed that from time to time?) At several junctures she reiterated that she was not condoning bigotry; the point was free speech.

One might have thought that Christakis was advocating that Yale students don Ku Klux Klan robes given what happened next. She found herself viciously assaulted verbally, with students demanding her firing. When her husband/professor, Nicholas, defended her, he too became a target. His attempts to open dialogue with students were dismissed with churlish and–I'll say it, childish–temper tantrums and demands that he too reign. That despite the fact that he magnanimously asked the public not to judge students whose anger was captured on video. Instead, both Christakises have been the object of obscenities, protests, and libelous associations with contributing to racism and genocide. One student went so far as to say, "I don't want to debate. I want to talk about my pain." I'm sorry, but as President Obama noted, we don't "learn" when we retreat behind our sensitivity.

I support Erika and Nicholas Christakis because I was once part of campus battles that overthrew the very structures of university control they fear are being reestablished. Do you like irony? In an earlier time, student protestors would have been severely disciplined for their incivility and disrespect. Today's students are only able to condemn their professors because, once upon a time, a bunch of us fought for the very free speech Yalies want to restrict!

In 1992, Noam Chomsky observed, "If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don't like. Stalin and Hitler, for example, were dictators in favor of freedom of speech for views they liked only. If you're in favor of freedom of speech, that means you're in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.” Yale students should heed those words. While they're at it, take in a little Latin: in loco parentis. It means "in the place of the parents" and it's how college administrations saw themselves (and were supported legally) until the 1960s New Left kicked out the jams.

That battle first attracted wide notice at UCal Berkeley. A little delving into the 1964 "Free Speech Movement" reveals that UCal students who had taken part in Mississippi Freedom Summer had to fight for the right to set up tables on campus to dispense information about it. Think upon that the next time you see a flyer on any campus anywhere about any issue whatsoever. Try this one: Look up the word parietal and tell me when Yale eliminated them. No, I'll tell you: 1968. That too happened because of students who valued freedom of expression over someone else's idea of propriety. Do you want to talk about how campuses became forums for social justice issues in the first place? Want to talk about non-sanctioned teach-ins, sit-ins, and marches? Should we discuss why colleges set up women's studies programs, Afro-Am departments, gay rights organizations, and ethnic studies programs of all sorts? Do you want to talk about the walls that had to come down in order to make campuses more diverse, or do you just want to talk about your pain? Guess what? Without free speech, nobody's listening.

And here's the really pernicious thing. The Hard-shell Right loves what you're doing. You give it ammo to dismiss you as intolerant thralls to Political Correctness whose collective butt needs to be spanked. It too has ideas about what values you should hold and how you should conduct yourselves. But you won't like them.   

Next: Yale II: Can community standards address oppression?

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