Rights group criticizes Yale

By January 11, 2010

This year’s Game may be over, but the controversy over the Freshman Class Council’s proposed T-shirt design continues.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that focuses on civil liberties in American colleges and universities, sent a letter last month to University President Richard Levin criticizing the administration for asking the FCC to reconsider its decision to sell a T-shirt deemed offensive for its use of the word "sissy" by members of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Co-operative. When members of the co-op raised their concerns in the week preceding the game, Yale College Dean Mary Miller asked the FCC to change the design, which displayed an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that labeled all Harvard men as "sissies" and added the words, "We agree."

Adam Kissel, the director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, wrote the letter, which was also sent to Miller, Dean of Freshman Affairs Raymond Ou, the FCC and the News.

"With the T-shirts, you see the phenomenon where the most easily offended people on campus control the discourse," Kissel said in an interview, "and the higher officials get to decide what is right to express."

In his letter, Kissel mentioned Yale’s own Woodward Report, a 1975 document outlining the University’s official policy on freedom of expression, in order to assert that Yale is not living up to its own principles.

Miller defended the administration’s actions, saying the fact that the Yale College Dean’s Office sponsors the FCC makes a difference.

"Yale College did not endorse this T-shirt by facilitating its printing by an official organization within the college," Miller said. "Nevertheless, the T-shirt certainly could have been made by another group and disseminated freely for the football game."

But Kissel said even if the Dean’s Office "pulls the purse strings," it should not take control over what the student government says.

"If they get to decide what’s acceptable and what the democratically elected FCC representatives are allowed to say, that’s the opposite of freedom of expression," he said. "It flies directly in the face of the Woodward Report."

Rachel Schiff ’10, who was co-coordinator of the LGBT Co-op at the time of the incident, said that issues of freedom of expression change when an incident occurs in a college campus.

"If we’re going to get legal, freedom of speech has a variety of constrictions in academic settings," Schiff said. "I actually applaud the administration, but more specifically, the FCC for looking out for the LGBT community."

The use of the word "sissies" was used out of context on the T-shirts, Schiff said, and was intended to be an insult drawn from an era where its usage was specifically aimed at gay people.

FCC President Brandon Levin ’13 said that when selecting the T-shirt design, the FCC was unaware that "sissies" could be construed as homophobic. When asked to change the design, the FCC quickly agreed.

"It’s the prerogative of FIRE to continue investigating, but from the standpoint of the FCC, the issue is closed, over and done with," Levin said.

Kissel’s letter asks University President Levin to respond by this Tuesday and reassure FIRE that Yale "will no longer seek to censor ‘the unmentionable.’" Kissel said he would like to know that when a similar situation comes in the future, a dean will not ask students to censor themselves.

Levin declined to comment about the controversy Sunday because he said he did not have all the information.

Schools: Yale University