After a tumultuous week at Yale University, we are starting to see some progress—and hopefully a way forward. On Tuesday, Yale’s president and the dean of Yale College issued a welcome reaffirmation of the necessity of freedom of expression at the institution. Now, the institution must make clear that Yale supports Erika and Nicholas Christakis and they will not face punishment or termination for their role in starting a national conversation about the importance of free speech on campus.
The past week has provided a powerful demonstration of how free speech enlightens and challenges us, on campus and beyond. This demonstration began when Yale students made their voices heard. As FIRE made clear in our initial coverage of last week’s events, “Yale students have every right to express their anger and frustration with faculty.” As the nation’s leading defender of student and faculty speech, FIRE fights every day to preserve that right at Yale and campuses nationwide.
I was disappointed by the illiberal way in which some Yale students exercised their right to free speech last Friday. By calling for Erika and Nicholas Christakis to resign their positions over Erika’s Halloween costume email, some students revealed an intolerance for dissenting views that contradicts the principles of free speech and freedom of expression that Yale claims to treasure.
This week, Yale students have exercised their right to freedom of expression in productive, commendable ways. They have answered speech with more speech: Students and administrators at Yale are engaging in a variety of productive discussions and demonstrations regarding race on campus, exactly the type of activism FIRE encourages on campuses every day. There’s been a lot of discussion about how the issues at Yale are much bigger than Erika and Nicholas Christakis, and that’s certainly the opinion of many students. Earlier this week, Yale students refocused the narrative and engaged in a thoughtful, powerful demonstration of student activism through a “March of Resilience” to express solidarity for students of color, and a forum to discuss race and diversity on campus. Both brought together over 1,000 students, faculty, and administrators.
The stories out of Yale also provoked an incredible reaction off campus, prompting compelling analysis from commentators nationwide. (These two articles by The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf are particularly clear-sighted.) Again, this is how free speech works at its best: Whether in agreement or disagreement with the Yale students’ or my concerns about free speech on campus, observers across the country have participated in an ongoing discussion that illuminates the important questions before us.
Predictably, the events at Yale and the University of Missouri have also produced a nasty backlash. It should go without saying that threatening student protesters (or anyone) with violence is never acceptable. True threats are not protected speech and require a response from law enforcement—which happened in at least two instances at the University of Missouri.
On Tuesday evening, in an encouraging sign, Yale President Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway issued a joint statement that reaffirms the university’s commitment to free speech. Here is the key excerpt:
We also affirm Yale’s bedrock principle of the freedom to speak and be heard, without fear of intimidation, threats, or harm, and we renew our commitment to this freedom not as a special exception for unpopular or controversial ideas but for them especially. We expect thinkers, scholars, and speakers, whether they come from our community or as invited guests, to be treated with respect and in the expectation that they can speak their minds fully and openly. By preventing anyone from bringing ideas into the light of day, we deny a fundamental freedom — and rob ourselves of the right to engage with those ideas in a way that gets to the core of Yale’s educational mission. We make this expectation as a condition of belonging to or visiting our community.
President Salovey and Dean Holloway also reaffirmed the university’s support for the principles contained in the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale—the Woodward Report—which eloquently recognizes the need to be free to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.”
However, there is something conspicuously missing from their otherwise strong statement: an explicit promise that neither Erika nor Nicholas Christakis will be forced or pressured to resign or otherwise punished in any way. Throughout my career, I have seen countless instances where university administrators pressured faculty to resign for controversial expression. As I wrote earlier this week in The Washington Post:
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.
Yale obviously has a number of issues to sort out. But an absolutely necessary part of doing so must be to prove that Yale means what it says about freedom of expression. Yale must declare that the Christakises will not be penalized or forced out of their positions in any way.