Harvard-Yale 2010 T-shirt Wars Begin; No Free Speech Casualties … Yet

November 9, 2010

The 2010 Harvard-Yale T-shirt wars are officially under way, in anticipation of the schools’ annual football game on November 20. The Yale Daily News reports that Yale College’s Freshman Class Council (FCC) has released its official design for The Game 2010, a riff on the recent movie The Social Network:

The blank space at the end leaves room for Yalies to insert the kindest, most highbrow compliments they can conceive of their intellectual equals at Harvard. (Or, you know, not.)

Meanwhile, the Harvard flyby, a blog hosted by The Harvard Crimson, points to this design as the winner of the Harvard College Fund Undergraduate Committee T-shirt contest:

flyby also shows an assortment of anti-Yale shirts created by various Harvard students and student groups, none of which should be difficult to find in Harvard Yard for the next two weeks:

Oh yes: It’s on. And so far, it all seems to be in good funcertainly, we’re off on a better foot than last year. FCC’s chosen design in 2009, some will remember, took a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, reading on the front, “I think of all Harvard men as sissies.” Crimson columnist Shalini Pammal recalls this incident in a recent column, writing:

Last year, the Yale Freshmen Class Council decided to not use what the freshmen class voted on to be their Harvard-Yale t-shirt; after an outcry. The original shirt … was pulled before it could even be printed. It was decided that the use of the word “sissies” as an insult plays too well into a history of its use to disparage members of the queer community. Making the decision to censor the shirt not only protected the marginalized but also protected the integrity of Yale’s image.

Not quite. Pammal correctly points out that the shirt was voted on by Yale students, but the notion that the FCC voluntarily pulled it after an “outcry” from the students is mistaken. Yes, there were some complaints about the shirt from the community. But Pammal neglects to note that it was Yale College Dean Mary Miller who stepped in and pulled the design, telling the News last year that “[w]hat purports to be humor by targeting a group through slurs is not acceptable.” She later defended this move by claiming that as dean, she had authority to overrule any of the FCC’s decisions.

Meanwhile, I’m dubious about Pammal’s assertion that censoring the T-shirt did anything to “protect[] the integrity of Yale’s image,” given the university’s disregard of its famed Woodward Report (.pdf), an admirable roadmap for the protection of free speech in the university in place since 1974.

Fortunately, Dean Miller later admitted that the incident had not been handled in the proper way, saying that she had “a lot to learn.” Yale University President Richard Levin, similarly, acknowledged that Yale had done a poor job and that “it is not the role of the Dean or any other University official to suppress the speech of any student or student organization.”

The lessons Miller learned seem to have stuck throughout the year, for when it came time to respond to a controversial speech-related incident involving a Yale fraternity, she wrote to the campus:

I write in response to concern over the [Delta Kappa Epsilon] incident on Yale’s Old Campus …. I speak for the University in expressing my outrage that such words were shouted on this campus.

That said, I repeat the words of the C. Vann Woodward report, official University policy, regarding speech:

We take a chance, as the First Amendment takes a chance, when we commit ourselves to the idea that the results of free expression are to the general benefit in the long run, however unpleasant they may appear at the time. The validity of such a belief cannot be demonstrated conclusively. It is a belief of recent historical development, even within universities, one embodied in American constitutional doctrine but not widely shared outside the academic world, and denied in theory and in practice by much of the world most of the time.

Responding to calls for punishment of the fraternity, Miller wrote:

[T]he process is not designed to provide satisfaction to those who might feel aggrieved as members of the larger community in which the offense has occurred.

But what matters most here is that the larger community has addressed the particular fraternity, DKE, and held them responsible and accountable for their actions.

Bad speech, in other words, was responded to with more speech, says Miller.

We’ll see if the lessons of last year make it through this year’s edition of the fabled football game, though so far there are no signs of trouble. Pammal’s column denounces T-shirts that, “in the name of cleverness, glorify aggressive if not violent male sexual dominance in both language and imagery” and “portray blatant sexual overtones which are fundamentally problematic.” Fine by me. She’s doing what Miller advised in the aftermath of the DKE incidentthat is, fighting “bad” speech with “better” speech by asking her fellow Harvard students to do better than the usual regime of suggestive and bawdy shirts (though the ones I’ve seen so far hardly fit this bill). So long as such sensitivities don’t mandate the censorship of those ideas and words in opposition, there’s as much room in the marketplace for Pammal’s preferences as for the less enlightened stuff you may see on some of the T-shirts this year.

Schools:  Harvard University Yale University

Cases:  Yale University: Controversial Anti-Harvard T-shirt Quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald