Yale University President Peter Salovey shared an important message with the Class of 2018 as he welcomed students to the university on Saturday. Salovey’s speech at Yale’s Freshman Assembly focused on the fundamental need for free expression, particularly at colleges and universities.
Addressing the students, Salovey recounted recent instances of speakers being disinvited from campuses or shouted down so that they were unable to share their viewpoints. He also told the story of an incident at Yale back in 1974, in which a controversial speaker was prevented from speaking at the school. This inspired history professor C. Vann Woodward to create a now-famous (among academics) report (PDF) explaining that it is paramount for universities to foster open debate and a “free interchange of ideas.” Salovey challenged students to remember this principle when faced with ideas they strongly oppose.
He acknowledged the difficulty both in hearing offensive ideas and in speaking out against them, but urged students to counter speech they don’t like with more speech:
There will be times when meaningful lessons can only be learned by gritting our teeth—and then arguing back. There will be times when we inhibit ourselves from freely expressing our thoughts to a peer for fear of offending him or her, only to discover that restraining ourselves from intellectually honest expression is itself insulting or patronizing to the very same person. There will be times—quite frankly—when we will find the ideas of others disgusting. But the answer to speech that offends us is, most often, our own speech: The response to hateful speech is speech that effectively counters the words of hate.
Salovey further noted that there are limits to freedom of expression—true threats of physical harm, for example, are unprotected—but reminded students that those exceptions must not be conflated with speech that is simply offensive. And while it is usually wise to be respectful when expressing opinions, such respect may not be mandated. He concluded:
I recognize that all of us here, in different ways, might also like to live in a campus community where nothing provocative and hurtful is ever said to anyone. And that is the part that I cannot—nor should not—promise you. For if we are not willing to be shocked, then we may not be allowing ourselves to be open to life-changing ideas, ideas that rock our worlds. And isn’t the opportunity to engage with those very ideas—whether to embrace them or dispute them—the reason why you chose Yale?
FIRE could not agree more. And of course, we’d be happy to work with Yale to bring its “yellow light” speech code policies fully in line with these ideas.
To read Salovey’s excellent speech in full, click over to Yale’s website.