“Whether you’ve been aware of it or not, the campus of Yale University has been awash with protests in the last two weeks.
The protests stem from a series of Halloween controversies, including allegations of racial discrimination by a fraternity on campus as well as allegations of insensitivity from university administrators. You can read an in-depth breakdown of the timeline (and I highly recommend you do) over at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), or you can consult this handy graphic timeline from The Yale Daily News, which also has several articles that come as recommended reading.
Now, I’ll preface all this by saying there are better written, more informed pieces to read on what’s happening at Connecticut’s most prestigious university (including the ones above), but it seems there is a clear point that needs to be emphasized no matter what side of the debate you are on: Free speech is always free, even when you disagree with it.
This opinion, my own, is focused solely on repercussions of an email sent to Silliman College students by Associate Master Erika Christakis (you can read it here) and the support her email received from her husband, Nicholas Christakis, who is the master of Silliman College. Primarily, I’m focusing on a pretty alarming interaction that took place between Nicholas Christakis and a group of student protesters, which was captured by in the videos below:
That third video, which is just shy of two minutes, encapsulates my entire issue with how these students treated Christakis. In the series of videos, they demand an apology from him. And he does apologize, as he says, for causing them pain. But the demand for him go further, for him to apologize for supporting his wife’s statements and apologize for supporting a student’s right to dress as he or she pleases, is too much.
Whether the student protesters like it or not, they attend a university in a country that, in its core document, entitles every individual to the right of free speech. That includes the right to use that speech in the form of protest, as the students did. It includes the right to use that speech to support, as Christakis did. And, yes, it includes the right to use that speech to be offensive.
I’m not saying anything new here. This isn’t a novel idea. It’s one that scholars are pointing out. It’s one that hundreds of people on Reddit have put forth. It’s one that Christakis hits on the head in saying, “Who gets to decide what’s offensive? Who gets to decide, guys? What if everybody says, ‘I am hurt’? Does that mean everyone else needs to stop speaking?”
And the answer, unequivocally, has to be no. Free speech is always free, even when you disagree with it, even when it offends you, and even when you’d rather not hear it.
And Yale students should know that better than anyone. They attend a school that, as FIRE pointed out, is committed to a person’s right to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable,” and informs students that attending the University is tantamount to agreeing that “when you encounter people who think differently than you do, you will be expected to honor their free expression, even when what they have to say seems wrong or offensive to you.”
I’m not a Yale student or administrator. I don’t have a side in this debate. I don’t have a strong or well-informed opinion about the status of social equality on Yale’s campus. But if there’s one thing in this world I know, it’s this: At some point in your life, someone will say something that upsets you, but that in no way means they don’t have the right to say it.