Amid Free Speech Debate, Yale Protesters Struggle to Keep the Focus on Racism

November 12, 2015

By Caitlin Dickson at Yahoo! News

A simple email about Halloween costumes at Yale has brought tension over campus racism to a head, sparking an ongoing debate about the First Amendment and political correctness.

After a notice from the university’s Intercultural Affairs Council urged undergraduates to avoid racially or culturally insensitive costumes, lecturer Erika Christakis sent an email to students at Silliman College, the residence hall for which she became associate master this fall, explaining why they should wear whatever they want on Halloween, regardless of whom they might offend.

“American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition,” Christakis wrote.

Her email was not sent in a vacuum, but came amid recent calls from students for Yale administrators to address concerns about racism on campus and, as such, sparked an immediate, emotional reaction.

Some members of Silliman College demanded that Christakis and her husband, Silliman Master Nicholas Christakis, resign. A video of a crowd confronting Nicholas Christakis in the Silliman courtyard, in which one student screams at the professor while another is heard saying, “Walk away. He doesn’t deserve to be listened to,” quickly went viral.

On Friday, attendees of a forum hosted by Yale’s William F. Buckley, Jr. Program were reportedly spit on and called racistby protesters after one of the speakers joked that based on the reaction to Christakis’ email, “You would have thought someone wiped out an entire Indian village,” and the comment was posted on Facebook. The topic of the Buckley program’s panel discussion was freedom of speech.

No sooner had university student activists garnered national attention for their cause than the conversation shifted away from the issue of race and into a debate about free speech. (At the same time, a similar situation was unfolding at the University of Missouri, where students affiliated with anti-racism protests that had just prompted the university president’s resignation, were seen forcefully pushing a student journalist away from their public encampment.) Countless columnists seized the opportunity to use the Yale protesters as proof that political correctness had officially spun out of control on college campuses.

At the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf wrote that it was the students demanding an end to institutionalized racism who were, in fact, guilty of intolerance.

The video of Nicholas Christakis surrounded by screaming students in the Silliman courtyard, Friedersdorf wrote, reveals “a fundamental disagreement between professors and undergrads.”

While Christakis appears to believe “that he has an obligation to listen to the views of the students, to reflect upon them, and to either respond that he is persuaded or to articulate why he has a different view,” Friedersdorf wrote, the students seem to assume that Christakis’ “responsibility is to hear their demands for an apology and to issue it. They see anything short of a confession of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings.”

“Notice that the student position allows no room for civil disagreement,” he added.

National Review columnist Kevin Williamson, who also participated in the Buckley Program’s free speech panel, was far less diplomatic, slinging a slew of names at the Yale protesters, including “idiot children,” “hysterical ninnies” and “maladjusted buffoons.”

“I’ve witnessed some intense campus disputes during my 14 years fighting for free speech, but never anything like this,” Greg Lukianoff, the prominent free speech advocate behind the “Indian village” quip, wrote in the Washington Post upon returning from New Haven.

Lukianoff, a constitutional lawyer and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), was one of the authors of a recent Atlantic cover story that suggested the fear of offending or causing discomfort to students has grown to censor professors and stifle intellectual debate at American universities.

Meanwhile, on campus, amateur columnists echoed the concerns of their professional counterparts, though with slightly less condemnation.

“What good is the First Amendment when people are shamed for holding dissenting views?” Zach Young, president of Yale’s William F. Buckley, Jr. Program, wrote in a column in the Yale Daily News following the protests that disrupted his group’s free speech conference. “Those protesters who called me a ‘white colonizer’ and posted on Facebook ‘unfriend me if you disagree’ are creating a campus culture that is hostile to free expression and the exchange of ideas. It is a culture in which students and faculty are afraid to voice their opinions. It is a culture of conformity, intimidation and silence.”

Young, a junior, told Yahoo News that this wasn’t the first time he’d experienced what he describes as challenges to free speech at Yale, pointing to protests from the university’s Muslim Students Association against the Buckley Program’s decision to invite women’s rights activist Aayan Hirsi Ali to speak on campus last year.

Young said his group felt that Ali, who, he noted, is a liberal, “deserved a platform.” Growing up with liberal parents and a socialist grandmother, Young, who identifies as a Republican, said he learned the merits of ideological diversity at a young age.

But, he said, “coming to Yale feels like you’re taking a vacation from the American political conversation.”

“I sometimes worry there is a groupthink mentality here,” Young said, though he believes there are actually a lot of students who “think it’s important to protect civil discourse.”

“Not a silent majority, but a silent plurality,” he said.

Young’s concerns aren’t exclusive to campus conservatives. Freshman Connor Wood, who told Yahoo News he is “quite liberal,” also wrote a column in the campus paper extolling the virtues of civil discourse and admonishing the behavior of some of his fellow students, writing, “I am scared for my school.”

“Watching the video of students’ confrontation with Silliman College Master Nicholas Christakis, I found myself fearing that the students would use physical violence against him,” reads Wood’s column. “Thank goodness, they didn’t, but the realization that this was even a possibility at a place like Yale is utterly terrifying.”

Wood is not in Silliman College, but like much of the rest of the student body, said he read Erika Christakis’ email on the Overheard at Yale Facebook page. Though he thought her timing might have been a bit insensitive given the current climate on campus, he said, “I think her intention to assert the right to free speech on campus was morally noble and in line with what the actual policy is.”

On Tuesday night, Wood attended the Yale Political Union’s debate on affirmative action, which, coincidentally, had been scheduled months before. Members of the Union’s left-leaning parties expressed their desire to postpone the debate, particularly because the event’s guest speaker, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, had been invited to argue against affirmative action.

The debate ultimately carried on as planned, with Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway telling Union members before Wax’s speech that, “By preventing anyone from bringing ideas into the light of day, we deny a fundamental right.” And while Wax was allowed to deliver her speech without interruption, the Yale Daily News reported that about a dozen students stood at the back of the room with their backs turned to Wax while she spoke. Afterward, representatives from several parties used the time typically reserved for responding in favor or against the guest’s argument to denounce the Union’s refusal to postpone the debate.

“I would have rather they talked so we could hear their opinions, but they made their point without shutting down other people, so that was reassuring to me,” Wood said. “I went into the debate worried something bad could happen. I left feeling reassured that rational discourse and peaceful civil disobedience are still the norm here at Yale.”

While Wood hasn’t actually participated in any of the protests — “I don’t feel comfortable participating because of what I’ve written,” he said — he’s tried to at least observe as many as he can. He considers peaceful gatherings, like Monday’s March of Resilience — which drew more than 1,000 students, professors and administrators, and included speeches about campus unity as well as musical performances and dancing — as much more indicative of the way students have been responding to racial issues on campus than the incident in the Silliman courtyard or the protests at the Buckley conference.

Yale senior Aaron Lewis expanded on this argument in a piece at Medium this week titled “What’s Really Going On at Yale,” in which he lamented the recent news coverage of his campus for inaccurately portraying student protests as little more than frivolous fights over Halloween costumes and frat parties.

“The reality is that students at Yale have been speaking up about serious racial issues on campus for many, many years — long before Erika Christakis even set foot here,” Lewis wrote. “But chronic racism isn’t newsworthy. It quietly whittles away at the hearts and minds of people who feel like they’re not being heard.”

Lewis told Yahoo News, “I have a black father and a white mother, but I don’t look black. I’m lucky that I haven’t had to deal with the kind of racial discrimination that students of color (especially women) face far too often.” Still, he said, “It’s everyone’s responsibility to have empathy and take seriously the experiences that students have had with racism.”

Lewis pointed to the peaceful March of Resilience as a much more accurate example of the way students have been protesting racism at Yale. And while, he said, “the viral video makes for a good headline,” all of the discussion surrounding that video seems to miss the point that “it’s possible to disagree with the tone of students’ protests without dismissing legitimate concerns about racial discrimination.”

By conflating the race issue with a debate about free speech, he argued, the media only further diminishes the minority students’ cause.

“I believe very strongly in free speech and the First Amendment.” Lewis wrote in an email to Yahoo News. “I also believe that Yale would be a better place without racial discrimination. These two beliefs are not mutually exclusive.”

“In other words,” he said. “People who love the first amendment can hate racism too.”

Schools: Yale University Cases: Yale University: Protesters at Yale Threaten Free Speech, Demand Apologies and Resignations from Faculty Members Over Halloween Email