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What ever happened to the Woodward Report?

By August 10, 2018

I’ve always liked a good idiom. I find these phrases refreshingly charming — through their colloquial usage, they manage to succinctly describe an elusive feeling. In troublesome times like these, I turn to a certain idiom in particular to best describe Yale’s current climate of free speech: Yale is running in place.

Yale has made numerous promises to guarantee students’ freedom of expression on campus. But underneath all of the bells and whistles, actual progress has not been made.

I’ve previously written about the appalling lack of discourse on Yale’s campus, but I wanted to further explore the administrative policies behind these problems. Prior to my research, I was expecting to find restrictive policies that blatantly infringed upon students’ rights. To my surprise, I found precisely the opposite. Instead, I stumbled upon the Woodward Report.

The Woodward Report is a comprehensive and eloquently written document demanding that Yale do “everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom.” The report came about in 1974 when Yale University’s president, Kingman Brewster Jr., appointed a committee to examine the state of free speech at Yale. After much deliberation, the committee, chaired by historian C. Vann Woodward, issued the Woodward Report. The report is now part of Yale’s official policy.

This report was among the first of its kind, and argues for the “right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” It refuses to let abstract notions of civility override the protection of open discourse. The report even states that the failure to allow for free speech should be enforced by formal sanctions “because obstruction of such expression threatens the central function of the university.” In short, it is everything that I could have hoped for in a free speech policy.

I am decidedly proud to attend a school that has demonstratively expressed such a firm and unwavering commitment to free speech. But there is a disturbing disconnect from the visionary promises made in the Woodward Report and the everyday realities on today’s campus.

The most notable incident illustrating Yale’s deteriorating culture of discourse took place in 2015 when Erika Christakis, an educator with an administrative role at Yale, sent out an email asking her students to think critically about the implementation of Halloween costume guidelines:

I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.

This email was not well-received. Even though Erika Christakis was only trying to open a dialogue on campus, students made international headlines by relentlessly protesting and calling for the resignation of both herself and her husband Nicholas Christakis, an esteemed Yale professor. I don’t view this as an isolated incident, but rather a symptom of the appalling lack of free expression on campus.

Adding insult to injury, Yale President Peter Salovey’s statement responding to the controversy only mentioned free speech as far as to say that Yale’s commitment to free expression was “unshakeable.” It is surreal that this was the extent of his discussion of free speech at Yale since issues of free expression were at the heart of this incident. This leads me to wonder: Does Yale still stand behind the Woodward Report and its promises to uphold freedom of speech on campus?

What good is the Woodward Report if the administration doesn’t turn to it when the state of free expression on campus is called into question? Come to think of it, I had never even heard of the Woodward Report before I started interning at FIRE, and a quick search for the “Woodward Report” in my Yale inbox containing over 6,000 emails does not yield a single result. It has become clear to me that the creation of the Woodward Report alone is insufficient.

Today I ask Yale to renew its values. It is time for Yale to express that even decades later, it still stands behind the Woodward Report and guarantees its students free speech on campus.

Yale’s institutional memory is incredibly short; every four years, the majority of campus is occupied by a new body of students. While the current climate of discourse at Yale is in an abysmal state, every cloud has a silver lining. Yale would send a powerful message by reaffirming its commitment to free expression, and could begin by providing every new student a copy of the Woodward Report when they arrive on campus.

I am neither a free speech absolutist blinded by an unattainable ideological pursuit nor a disgruntled conservative looking to pick a fight. I am simply an optimistic student who loves Yale and for that very reason knows that it can be better. Let’s stop running in place and start propelling ourselves into a freer future.

Lily Rogers is a rising sophomore at Yale University and FIRE summer intern

Schools: Yale University