A Possible Precedent for Yale University in the Case of the Censored ‘Sissies’ T-shirts

By on January 13, 2010

Yale University seems to be facing more than its share of troubles lately. In this context, it is something of a shame that resources need to be spent on dealing with a Yale College dean’s decision to censor the democratically chosen T-shirt design of its Freshman Class Council (FCC). Last November, just before the Harvard-Yale football game, Dean Mary Miller decided to pull the design, which used a quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald calling Harvard students "sissies." Apparently, completely unknown to the FCC leadership, the word was considered by some Yalies to be an anti-gay slur.

After FIRE called Yale on the censorship and the blogosphere lit up, the Yale Daily News procured a statement from Dean Miller that made the situation worse instead of better. She asserted her office’s editorial control over the FCCafter all, she pulls the purse strings, and the FCC ultimately reports to her, so (she says) she gets to control the content.

This case is thus following, in some ways, the path of Yale student Wayne Dick from the mid-1980s, whose case got worse and worse until finally Yale President Benno Schmidt stepped in to defend the student’s freedom of expression. You can read about the case in The Shadow University, page 148:

[...] Yale Sophomore Wayne Dicka Christian conservativedistributed a handout satirizing Yale’s GLAD, Gay and Lesbian Awareness Days. It announced the celebration of "BAD, Bestiality Awareness Days," …. Patricia Pearce, the associate dean of Yale College, informed Dick by letter that both an administrative member of the dean’s office’s Racial and Ethnic Harassment Board and a gay activist had "submitted … a complaint alleging harassment in the form of a ‘BAD week 86′ poster." The college’s Executive Committee Coordinating Group had decided that the charge that Dick’s poster violated a ban on "physical restriction, assault, coercion, or intimidation" had merit …. According to Dick, as reported in the Village Voice in July 1986, when he asked Dean Pearce how his satiric flier could be actionable if Yale’s policy guaranteed full freedom of expression and the right to "challenge the unchallengeable," she replied that it did not protect "worthless speech." On May 13 [1986], the Executive Committee found Dick guilty of harassment and intimidation. [Footnote omitted.]

Matthew Silversten picks up the story in the Ohio State Law Journal, as quoted and paraphrased at length by a commenter on a Yale Daily News blog post on the T-shirt controversy:

Unwilling to simply accept his punishment, and in need of some clarification on what was acceptable speech at Yale, Wayne Dick wrote an appeal letter to Yale president, A. Bartlett Giamatti. The university’s president responded to Dick’s appeal by stating that the committee’s decision would stand. Wayne Dick’s situation looked rather bleak when Nat Hentoff, a free speech journalist, heard about it and decided to get involved. Hentoff talked with Guido Calabresi, Dean of the Yale School of Law, who was familiar with the story and felt the situation was "outrageous!" Hentoff began rallying the national media, and articles critical of the Yale decision appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice, and The Washington Post. Then Giamatti left Yale to become president of Major League Baseball’s National League and was replaced by Benno Schmidt. President Schmidt, in his inaugural address, announced his stand on the topic of free expression when he stated: "There is no speech so horrendous in content that it does not in principle serve our purposes." [Emphasis added.]

Dick’s story had a happy ending, as the commenter adds:

President Schmidt then encouraged Wayne Dick to ask the Executive Committee for a new hearing, which Dick decided to do. In a press release, the Executive Committee announced that it had voted to reverse its earlier decision to discipline Wayne Dick, adding that the decision to overturn Dick’s conviction had nothing to do with the negative publicity the committee had received from the national media.

Close to 25 years later, FIRE is patiently awaiting President Richard Levin’s response to our letter in the matter of the T-shirt censorship. I trust that President Levin will take to heart not only Yale’s admirable defense of free speech in its Woodward Report (under President Kingman Brewster, Jr.) but also President Schmidt’s statement that "There is no speech so horrendous in content that it does not in principle serve our purposes."

Schools: Yale University Cases: Yale University: Controversial Anti-Harvard T-shirt Quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald