Mohammed Cartoon Controversy Cemented Yale’s Place on Our List of ’12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech’

February 2, 2011

As we continue to look at how the “12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” made our list on The Huffington Post, today we come to Yale University.

Yale University is no stranger to entanglements with free speech, or to FIRE. Despite its reputation for academic excellence and stellar promises of freedom of expression and academic freedom, Yale has been on the wrong side of a number of free speech issues over the years. So it likely comes as little surprise to FIRE followers to see Yale earn this dubious distinction.

Back in the early days of FIREin 2001, to be more preciseYale first showed up on our radar after administrators removed a pro-war campus sign about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that read, “Kill ’em all, Let God sort ’em out.” The officials claimed that the sign was offensive and potentially hostile to ethnic minorities on campus. However, after two op-eds in the Yale Daily News spoke out against this act of censorship, the administrators acknowledged that the matter could have been dealt with in more proper fashion, and affirmed their commitment to freedom of expression on Yale’s campus.

Much more recently, Yale found itself in the news after Dean of Students Mary Miller interfered with the decision of the Freshman Class Council (FCC) to distribute a T-shirt for the annual Harvard-Yale football game. The offending T-shirts reprinted a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald on the front: “I think of all Harvard men as sissies.” Arguing that the word “sissy” could be seen as a derogatory slur against homosexuals, Dean Miller threatened to censor the T-shirts before the FCC backed down and changed the design. Though the FCC actually pulled the plug on the T-shirts itself, the group was essentially coerced into doing so, given Miller’s comments to the Yale Daily News that “What purports to be humor by targeting a group through slurs is not acceptable.”

As if that weren’t enough, Miller later claimed that she enjoyed financial and editorial control over the FCC. After FIRE intervened, Yale President Richard C. Levin ultimately acknowledged that his institution’s actions in this matter were not proper, but not before the harm had been done and Yale students had been taught the wrong lessons about censorship.

In another overreaction to sophomoric humor, Yale predictably overreacted to a controversy that arose when a campus fraternity had pledges stand in front of the Yale Women’s Center holding up a sign that read, “We Love Yale Sluts.” When the Women’s Center threatened to file what would have been a frivolous lawsuit against the fraternity, as well as the university, simply because it was offended by this sophomoric expression, Yale quickly capitulated to its demands. In fact, Yale agreed not only to bring charges against the fraternity brothers and pledges, but also to expand its sexual harassment policies and–get this–provide the Women’s Center with more money and renovate its building. Thankfully, the school ultimately found that the fraternity members were not guilty of harassment or intimidation, but the fact that Yale brought charges against students for one-time expression that came nowhere close to the legal standards for peer harassment or intimidation is telling.

But all of this is mere backdrop to the main reason Yale finds itself on our list of the “12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech”: the university’s decision to interfere with the editorial process of its own press, the Yale University Press, and censor cartoon images of Mohammed in a book about the controversy over cartoon images of Mohammed.

In 2009, Yale University Press was slated to publish a book by author Jytte Klausen, titled The Cartoons That Shook the World, discussing the controversy and violence that resulted from the publication of cartoons of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper in 2005. As part of its discussion of the subject matter, Klausen’s book was to contain reproductions of the cartoons as well as other images of Mohammed. However, Yale University decided to override the decision of its own press and submitted the cartoons, out of proper context, to an anonymous group of consultants for their take on the matter. Relying on the advice of these consultants, Yale stepped in and removed the cartoons from Klausen’s book. The rationale provided was that inclusion of the images in the book threatened to cause further resentment, anger, and possibly violence on the part of offended people in various parts of the world, and Yale did not want to be responsible for these consequences.

Despite a host of criticism from both near and far for its blunt act of censorship and clumsy handling of the situation, Yale stuck with its decision, and Klausen’s book was eventually published without any of the offending images. Yale decided to take the cowardly way out by giving in to a vague, unsubstantiated threat. This decision was an affront to academic freedom and free expression in a free society.

Yale’s repeated free speech offenses are a shame to its admirable and well-known Woodward Report, a document that enshrines the principles of free speech and purports to protect free inquiry, thought, and expression at the university. We hope that Yale’s run-ins with FIRE and free speech over the years, and the criticism it has encountered nationally in the media and among proponents of free expression, have made its leaders more aware of their duty to uphold the robust promises of freedom of speech Yale makes to its students and faculty. If so, hopefully we won’t be seeing any more cases like these at Yale in the coming years.


Schools:  Yale University

Cases:  Yale University: Controversial Anti-Harvard T-shirt Quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald Topic: Campuses Attempt to Censor Publication of Depictions of Mohammed