Yale Caves into Its Women’s Center’s Speech-Repressing Demands

By on March 13, 2008

In January, the Yale Chapter of Zeta Psi ruffled feathers on campus when a photo surfaced on the Internet showing a group of brothers holding a sign that read "We Love Yale Sluts" in front of the Yale Women’s Center. The fraternity immediately issued an abject apology, saying their sign reflected a "lapse in judgment" and they were "deeply sorry." The apology continued:

In the future, behavior of this nature will neither be enacted nor tolerated, and we only hope that our peers can forgive the mistakes made in this situation. The officers of the fraternity are open and willing to meet with the leaders of the Yale Women’s Center to discuss this issue further and address solutions to this kind of irresponsible behavior.

One would think this would have been the end of the matter from the university’s perspective. But no. The Yale Women’s Center threatened to sue the fraternity and the university, and gave the university a deadline to meet its demands, which included punishing the fraternity brothers and pledges, beefing up Yale’s sexual harassment policies, and more staff and a better building for the Center.

Even though the threatened lawsuit was frivolous and had little chance of winning, Yale has now caved in to the Center’s demands. Yale has promised the Women’s Center more cash and started renovating its building. Yale has also set up a committee to evaluate the current sexual harassment policies—the recommendations of which Yale has promised to seriously consider enacting. Finally, Yale has implied that the fraternity brothers involved in the incident may face disciplinary charges.

Before Yale punishes its students for briefly displaying a mildly offensive sign and turns its harassment policy into a draconian speech code, let’s hope that Yale remembers it is supposed to be a world-class university and not an elementary school. Elementary schools might legitimately punish their young charges when they "use bad words" on school grounds, but liberal universities should not.

It is an embarrassment that Yale is willing to distribute funds and augment building space on the basis of one act of offensive speech. I am sure alumni who donate large amounts of money expect a thorough, empirical assessment of centers’ efficacy on campus before allotting them more funds. They do not expect the university to simply hand one of its centers cash because the center has threatened a frivolous lawsuit based on one immature incident. Considering the Women’s Center’s actions in this case, maybe Yale should investigate cutting its budget, not expanding it. In this instance, the Center turned down the apologetic fraternity brothers’ offer to take instruction from the Center in favor of more cash, a campus speech code, and the possibility of punishment that will surely embitter the fraternity members rather than change their attitudes. This cynical and calculated reaction suggests the Women’s Center’s real goal is not to reduce sexism on campus, but to increase their power and obtain the appearance of a sexism-free campus through a speech code backed up with harsh punishments.

It is a shame Yale succumbed even in part to the Women’s Center’s demands. Yale should have urged the Women’s Center as well as students offended by the once-displayed "We Love Yale Sluts" sign to deal with it by responding with more speech and social condemnation. Ironically, this course of action is clearly required by Yale’s own policy on free expression, which condemns formal sanctions on speech that the majority or minority finds offensive, stating, "If expression may be prevented, censored or punished, because of its content or because of the motives attributed to those who promote it, then it is no longer free. It will be subordinated to other values that we believe to be of lower priority in a university." Indeed.