Yale University's (and the Media's) Free Speech Problem
February 21, 2011
Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), recently ranked Yale as among the worst colleges for free speech. Certainly, my alma mater deserves its notoriety. In 2009, Yale College Dean Mary Miller censored the Freshman Class Council’s traditional t-shirt ahead of the Yale-Harvard game because it reproduced an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote with a dirty word—“sissies.” Yale also made international headlines when a top administrator intervened with the nominally autonomous Yale University Press to censor a scholarly study of the Danish cartoon controversy. The interjection coincided with Yale President Richard Levin’s outreach to Persian Gulf funders. And when Levin sought to court China and Chinese money, he restricted protests outside the campus venue in which Chinese President Hu Jintao, his guest of honor, would speak.
Such free speech woes put Yale in good company among liberal arts colleges. What makes Yale’s case more troubling, however, is the role of journalists in supervising the abuses. Two prominent journalists and one media mogul sit on the Yale Corporation, which, because of its small size, “plays an unusually active role in University governance.”
Both Jeffrey Bewkes, chairman and CEO of Time Warner, and Margaret Warner, a senior correspondent for PBS NewsHour, have been silent in the face of Yale’s assault on free speech. When Yale administrators sought advice on whether to censor the academic treatment of the cartoons, they turned to Yale Corporation member Fareed Zakaria, a CNN host and Newsweek International editor. He endorsed the censorship, telling the Boston Globe, “You’re balancing issues of the First Amendment and academic freedom, but then you have this real question of what would be the consequences on human life.” There had been no threats to Yale, however, nor had there been retaliation against numerous American journals or websites which had reproduced the images. The irony of Zakaria’s preemptive censorship was that, as Martin Kramer had pointed out, he had penned an essay entitled “Learning to Live with Radical Islam” in which he had declared, “We should mount a spirited defense of our views and values.” Too bad that for Zakaria and Yale, a spirited defense equates with preemptive surrender.
FIRE has rightly chastised Yale for its free speech woes. Rather than just castigate Yale, however, perhaps it is time for introspective journalists to cast aside moral ambiguity and again make free speech—even if they dislike what others have to say—a pillar of the university.