Yale President Defends Censorship of Mohammed Cartoons, But Acknowledges Free Speech Commitment in T-shirt Controversy

By on January 15, 2010

In a letter to FIRE, Yale University President Richard C. Levin maintained Yale’s position defending the censorship of images of Mohammed in a book about those images, citing a "risk to life and safety." However, President Levin also reaffirmed Yale’s commitment to the strong protection of free speech in its classic Woodward Report, stating that "it is not the role of the Dean or any other University official to suppress the speech of any student or student organization" and expressing "regret" for Dean Mary Miller’s role in the withdrawal of the Freshman Class Council’s T-shirt design calling Harvard students "sissies."

Regarding the Mohammed cartoons, this response is consistent with Yale’s previous responses, and one thing is true: violence over the cartoons continues. FIRE’s response also remains the same, however. As a broad coalition of rights organizations, including FIRE, wrote in November 2009: "The failure to stand up for free expression emboldens those who would attack and undermine it."

We are fortunate that in America our exercise of free speech rarely poses a true "risk to life and safety." Yet there is no faster or surer way to ensure that this is not always so than by giving into mob censorship. If those who would use violence to censor dissent are too often allowed to achieve their goalsand make no mistake, Yale has given them a serious victory with its censorship of the Mohammed cartoons in an academic workit can only lead to further violence and death. Tactics that succeed will be emulated. It pains FIRE greatly that one of our nation’s greatest universities does not seem willing to acknowledge this.

As for the much lower-stakes conflict over the T-shirts, President Levin is also rewriting history a little. Just days ago, Dean Miller defended her decision to censor the T-shirts in a statement she gave to the Yale Daily News:

"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."

It thus is more likely that Dean Miller coerced the students to pull the design than that, as President Levin states, the decision to pull the design "was made by the Class Council, not the dean."

Now, however, it seems that she and President Levin are on the same page:

But, as best I can determine, it would have been possible, and not unreasonable, for some members of the Council to interpret Dean Miller’s counsel as a directive. This we regret. Dean Miller and I stand by the University’s commitment to free expression, and we would not want to give any students the impression that the content of their speech is subject to censorship. [Emphasis added.]

It seems that the two of them have had a conversation and that, as FIRE requested last month, Yale has been able to affirm that Yale administrators will no longer seek to censor words that they (especially Dean Miller) label "not acceptable." We have serious questions about the depth of Yale’s real commitment to free speech, but we are gratified that President Levin seems to understand that Yale’s handling of the T-shirt issue was less than ideal.

Schools: Yale University Cases: Yale University: Controversial Anti-Harvard T-shirt Quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald Yale University: Censorship of Mohammed Cartoons at Yale University Press