Yale Dean Defends Censorship of ‘Sissies’ T-Shirt, Claims Control over Freshman Student Government

By January 11, 2010

Today’s Yale Daily News reports that Yale College Dean Mary Miller has defended her choice to censor a T-shirt design quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald that had been democratically chosen and was going to be printed by Yale’s Freshman Class Council (FCC). According to a statement given by Dean Miller to the Yale Daily News, which reporter Jordi Gassó read to me in full, the FCC reports to Dean Miller’s office and therefore is under her office’s financial and editorial control. Thus, she had no problem censoring the T-shirt, which quoted Fitzgerald’s line, "I think of all Harvard men as sissies," and was intended to be worn by Yale students around the time of the annual Harvard-Yale football game last November.

In particular, as Gassó reported:

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." 

I hope that this argument comes as a surprise to the FCC and to Yale’s freshman class. Does Yale’s freshman class really agree with Dean Miller that the FCC is a kind of sham student government, beholden not to its constituents but to Yale administrators?

Somebody should let Yale’s overall student government, the Yale College Council (YCC), know about this, for the YCC currrently is under the impression that the FCC is one of "several subsidiary organizations that [the YCC] funds and oversees."

Last month FIRE wrote Yale President Richard C. Levin about Dean Miller’s censorship, asking him to honor the freedom of speech principles enshrined in Yale’s admirable Woodward Report, a document which purports to protect free expression at Yale. We wrote:

Does the Woodward Report exclude the word "sissies" from the principle that "the results of free expression are to the general benefit in the long run, however unpleasant they may appear at the time"? … In matters large and small, Yale has taken steps that erode the freedom it once championed, teaching its students that the authorities ultimately decide which expressions are acceptable or unacceptable. This seems the very opposite of a liberal education in a free society. … Please let Yale be governed by its own admirable policies, including its own Woodward Report. In the end, these policies will serve truth and tolerance more than censorship will. Please respond by January 12, 2010, and reassure us that Yale will no longer seek to censor "the unmentionable."

Now that Dean Miller has made matters worse instead of better, it is all the more incumbent upon Levin to respond. As Gassó reported, "Kissel said he would like to know that when a similar situation comes in the future, a dean will not ask [I would actually draw the line at requiring, not just asking] students to censor themselves." And I’d like to know what Yale’s freshman class thinks about the authoritarian power that Dean Miller has asserted over their putatively democratic student government.

As of yesterday, according to Gassó, President Levin "declined to comment about the controversy Sunday because he said he did not have all the information." Well, now that the case has been all over the blogosphere, it’s about time to get up to speed. Back on December 18, we asked for a response by tomorrow, January 12. We look forward to receiving a timely response from President Levin.

Schools: Yale University