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On the front lines of the fight for free speech at Yale

The Eternally Radical Idea

This article appeared in The Washington Post.

Coincidences can be spooky. Last week, I showed up at Yale University in the middle of a campus crisis—and got drawn into it myself.

I was visiting to give a long-planned lecture on campus free speech. When I showed up, students were in an uproar over an email sent by one of the heads of the very dormitory where I was scheduled to speak.

Enter Erika Christakis, lecturer and associate master of Yale’s Silliman College (for non-Yalies, a dormitory). Erika is open-minded and a consistent critic of groupthink. When Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an e-mail urging students to be sensitive in their choice of Halloween costumes, Erika sent out a thoughtful response asking if such e-mails were in tension with students’ right to autonomy and expression.

Readers may not realize that Halloween has become a season of campus controversy. For years, college administrators have been issuing stern warnings to students not to wear “offensive” costumes. I’d always assumed students were privately rolling their eyes at these often overbearing instructions from authority figures on how to dress.

But last Thursday I watched dozens of angry students surround Erika’s husband, Nicholas Christakis, in Silliman’s central courtyard to demand he apologize for Erika’s perfectly reasonable e-mail. Nicholas is a Yale professor and the master of Silliman College. I’ve witnessed some intense campus disputes during my 14 years fighting for free speech, but never anything like this.

managed to record some of the confrontation, knowing that the easiest way for Nicholas to be fired would be for a student to claim that he flew off the handle. But he didn’t. Instead, Nicholas addressed the crowd for more than an hour, even after it became clear that nothing short of begging for forgiveness would satisfy them.

As Nicholas vigorously but respectfully defended the principles of free expression, students cried, shouted, and cursed at him. One even demanded his resignation.

And then I found myself part of the story.

Another coincidence—the program had just come out with an extensive poll that revealed deeply troubling student attitudes about free speech. Mostly notably, over half of students polled favor speech codes that restrict free speech on campus.

When I described just how fierce the students’ reaction to Erika’s e-mail had been, the audience seemed skeptical, so for emphasis I said, “You would think that given the reaction to what she had written that she had actually wiped out an Indian village.”

Shortly after, I paused when I heard commotion on the other side of the room: a student appeared to respond to my comments and began putting up posters. I couldn’t make out much of what he said as he fought with the security guard who asked him to leave (the student was not registered for the event), but I agreed he could post the posters and attempted to continue my speech.

As the guard struggled to lead him to the exit, the student yelled, “You people speak like you don’t know the history of the country you pretend to love! And you talk about burning Indian villages, which gets a lot of laughs!”

Word of my “offensive” comment spread quickly. Over 100 students gathered to protest the event, chanting and holding signs reading “Genocide is not a joke.”

One of the event attendees reported to the Yale Daily News that he was spat upon.

The point of my dark quip was to illustrate that students were reacting to Christakis’s e-mail as if she had committed some unspeakable evil, rejecting context, and displaying a burning desire to be offended and censor.

Ironically, in making that point, I caused students to do it all over again and make my point for me.

But the reaction to my comment is a sideshow—the focus should remain on defending Erika and Nicholas Christakis’s free speech rights. In today’s campus climate, when professors find themselves on the “wrong” side of the culture war, even those with tenure can find their jobs in jeopardy.

I have seen time and again university administrations press faculty to resign for their controversial expression. The university usually tries to make the resignation look like it was the professor’s own decision. If this were to happen at Yale, it would be a chilling warning to future faculty and students that if you even mildly question the prevailing orthodoxy on campus, you will have hell to pay.

Yale students, alumni, and members of the public must demand that the Christakises face no threat of punishment, and if either professor steps down now or in the coming months, it must be understood to represent Yale’s glaring failure to live up to its own glowing promises to protect and honor freedom of speech on campus.

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