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The High Cost of Free Speech on Campus

December 13, 2015, 9:27 PM UTC

Yale University

Ever since U.S. News & World Report began ranking law schools, Yale has been number one—a position it held on to through every list. The most selective law school in the country, accepting only 8.3% of its applicants, it also is tied with Harvard Law School for the highest median LSAT scores: 173.
Photograph bia: Getty

My college friend Kent George had vastly different political views from mine. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on any topical issue then and probably still don’t today. But he lived down the hall from me freshman year, and we ended up watching reruns of the Groucho Marx TV show, “You Bet Your Life,” every night at 10. And when my family moved to his hometown, we played a lot of bluegrass together (he took the upright bass, I played the spoons).

Those memories are precious, but I wouldn’t have them, and neither would Kent, if we had decided to hang out only with students who thought the same way we did.

Kent came to mind this week when I read about the resignation of Yale lecturer Erika Christakis, an early childhood educator at the Yale Child Study Center. Christakis was troubled by a request from Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee that students avoid wearing “culturally unaware and insensitive” costumes at holiday parties. Christakis sent an email to students:

I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious, a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?…. If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.

What could be wrong with a call for tolerance at one of the nation’s oldest and most respected universities? According to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Christakis may not have fully appreciated the extent to which many students at Yale continue to experience oppression at the school. This includes “chronic, structural racial injustice — such as the persistent paucity of black faculty members and administrators at Yale, the common experience of being the only black student in some classes, and being disproportionately likely to be stopped and asked for ID — or worse — by campus police officers.”

Of course, Yale is not the only campus where minority students have recently confronted injustice. At the University of Oklahoma, a fraternity sang about the virtues of lynching. Another fraternity at Arizona State mocked the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. by flashing gang signs and drinking alcohol out of a hollowed-out watermelon. A Duke student threw a noose around a tree at a campus plaza. And students at several schools have attended affairs in “blackface” or as Mexican stereotypes.

How can such activities be considered funny or clever?

As Altaf Rahamatulla, a Ford Foundation program associate, recently noted in Fortune, students are protesting these hateful activities with great passion and in huge numbers, as they did this fall at the University of Missouri. What’s disturbing in a different way, however, is how some of that passion is expressed.

One student at Yale, who was upset by how Erika Christakis’ husband Nicholas has been running her residence hall, cursed and yelled repeatedly at him, as a widely viewed YouTube video reveals. Erika was so upset by the reaction to her email that she no longer felt comfortable enough to remain on faculty and she resigned. (She declined to offer comment for this article.)

However much some Yale students objected to Erika Christakis’ email, and however much her remarks betrayed an insensitivity to racial tensions at the school, the proper response can’t be harassing her to the point that she decides that teaching isn’t worth it.

To its credit, Yale’s administration wants Erika to reconsider her decision. “Her teaching is highly valued,” administration officials said, “and she is welcome to resume teaching anytime at Yale, where freedom of expression and academic inquiry are the paramount principle and practice.”

I’m not convinced, however, that the leaders of other academic institutions, both public and private, are similarly committed to free speech. Consider, for example, how often you learn that a controversial commencement speaker was disinvited to speak after students (and, in some cases, faculty) objected. Former President George W. Bush, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers are just three examples of this trend.

Such leaders “are invited because they have played a major role in shaping American history,” says Mary C. Kelly, a history professor at Franklin Pierce University. “Whether we agree with them or not is secondary to the objective, which is to send students into the world with the understanding that they’re not going to find every idea that comes at them palatable or comfortable.”

Education at its best doesn’t tell you what to think; it shows you how to think. “The purpose of higher education is to equip students with the tools to challenge beliefs and language that they don’t agree with,” says Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller. “You can’t succeed at that if you don’t present that language.”

“Can you imagine even wanting to go to a university where all you were told is what you wanted to hear?” my college friend Kent asked me when I brought up this issue with him. With that question, Kent and I finally found something to agree on other than the value of watching classic quiz shows and playing country music.

Sometimes the best leaderships lessons in education come from elementary school. At Harmony Hills in San Antonio, Texas, Mrs. Hairgrove, my music teacher, had us sing a song called “Freedom Isn’t Free” by Paul Colwell. The chorus went, “You have to pay a price, you have to sacrifice, for your liberty.” The idea still holds true. The best solution to troubling speech is more speech, not less.