When I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, our various class councils endlessly outdid themselves in the art of emasculating the Princeton tiger, mascot of our archrival. Our depictions of the tiger, emblazoned on T-shirts, ran the gamut from gentle mockery to representations of acts that would be illegal in most if not all of the fifty states.
Of course, Penn students bought them in droves, myself included.
For Yale University’s Freshman Class Council (FCC), then, to print a F. Scott Fitzgerald quote—"I think of all Harvard men as sissies"—on T-shirts would not seem to invite controversy. After all, these T-shirts (which read "WE AGREE" on the back) were to be given out in the days leading up to The Game, the classic annual match between the Harvard and Yale football teams. If there was a week where this kind of PG-rated jingoism would go unnoticed, you’d be forgiven for thinking Game Week would be it. This year, though, you’d have been wrong.
As the Yale Daily News reported on November 19:
The FCC [Freshman Class Council] has decided to change the design of its shirts after the original design, which was submitted by students and voted on by the freshman class, sparked outcry from members within the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. But after the LGBT Cooperative and other students raised concerns about the design — which contained the word "sissies" — administrators asked the FCC to reconsider. FCC representatives decided Tuesday to scrap the old T-shirts, which had not yet been printed, and make a new design.
The winning T-shirt design, chosen from a field of six finalists, initially sparked concern among members of the LGBT Co-op, and some members of the freshman class voiced concerns to the FCC. One student called the "sissies" reference a "thinly-veiled gay slur." The matter passed through the FCC Executive Board and Dean of Freshman Affairs Raymond Ou and ultimately to Dean of Students Mary Miller, who "decided to pull the design," according to the News.
FCC soon thereafter formally withdrew the design without any of the shirts having been printed, and claimed to have done so independently of Dean Miller’s decision. This contention, however, does not excuse the administration’s unacceptable interference. Miller made her position quite clear in telling the News that "What purports to be humor by targeting a group through slurs is not acceptable."
Dean Miller’s narrow conception of what humor is "acceptable" infringes on freedom of expression at Yale—but what else is new? Yale apparently has abandoned its famous Woodward Report as well as its own policies protecting free expression.
Predictably, the scandal has provoked all-too-familiar acts of self-flagellation so often seen when students feel the need to atone for violating the non-existent right of their fellow students to not be offended:
[Yale College Council] President Jon Wu ’11, who said he has been advising the FCC on the issue, said the problem was that the line of people that approved the shirts did not realize the word "sissies" was offensive.
"None of us realized the connotation," Wu said in an e-mail to the News. "No member of the Yale community should feel marginalized."
At least one Yalie, freshman Bijan Aboutorabi, has called them out. In a November 20 News column, he incisively points out why the community should view the episode as a cautionary tale:
Of course, the FCC and the administration had the right to change the T-shirts. There is no free speech issue as far as the law is concerned. But the tacit political agreement undergirding the FCC’s capitulation, the notion that, with the words "I am offended!," any member of a community should decide what is or is not acceptable to say, is inimical to our ideals of free expression. Political correctness imposes the most tyrannical form of censorship, the censorship of hurt feelings.
If the word in question was something truly malicious, it would be a different matter. But sissies? Far more than a half-baked conception of gender roles, this tame, humorous trochee conjures a figure of mere cowardice and ineffectuality. It suggests, indeed, a figure not unlike Fitzgerald himself.
Aboutorabi is correct to state that there’s no "legal" issue here. Yale is a private university and not bound by the First Amendment, and no Yale student is likely to sue the school for breach of contract, alleging that the school has broken its own promises of freedom of expression. But his next point is the crucial one: Even though the law doesn’t necessarily compel a different result, the "right not to be offended" has once again trumped all other concerns on campus. Freedom of expression means precious little in this kind of environment.
Aboutorabi concludes by asking the questions Yale administrators and his fellow students seem unwilling to ask themselves:
What culture of discourse are the LGBT Co-op, the FCC and Miller encouraging by this act of soft censorship? Is it one befitting robust and mature minds, willing to challenge and to be challenged, to give and to take offense? Or is it one that coddles its participants, rushing to mollify the most quickly offended sensibility? Is it one that rewards argument or one that incentivizes umbrage? Is it a culture for adults — or sissies?
And Aboutorabi didn’t even vote for the controversial design, saying instead, "I couldn’t care less about what my fellow freshmen are wearing when we trounce Harvard this weekend, as long as it’s blue."
As it happened, Yale lost, with Harvard scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns to steal The Game’s 2009 edition from the Elis, 14-10. So, while the scuttled T-shirt design cannot reasonably be deemed unfit for the student body, it can be said, for this year at least, to be inaccurate.