Getting minds right at Yale: FIRE’s draft apology

I was in the audience in an auditorium at Yale for the scheduled debate between William Rusher and William Shockley in April 1974. Protesters in the standing room only audience inside and hundreds more directly outside at the windows shut down the debate with nonstop clapping, stomping, and chanting when the first speaker took the lectern. I recall the first speaker being Rusher, but the New York Times story on the event identifies him as Shockley. (It isn’t clear to me that the author of the Times story was there.)

The debate was a provocation, but the shutdown had the atmospherics of a fascist production. It was chilling and it did not go down well in some parts of the institution. Yale President Kingman Brewster appointed a commission to undertake an evaluation of free speech on campus to be chaired by the prominent historian C. Vann Woodward. The Woodward Report — Report of the Committee on Free Expression at Yale — was issued that December. These are the report’s key findings:

We take a chance, as the First Amendment takes a chance, when we commit ourselves to the idea that the results of free expression are to the general benefit in the long run, however unpleasant they may appear at the time…

For if a university is a place for knowledge, it is also a special kind of small society. Yet it is not primarily a fellowship, a club, a circle of friends, a replica of the civil society outside it. Without sacrificing its central purpose, it cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect. To be sure, these are important values; other institutions may properly assign them the highest, and not merely a subordinate priority; and a good university will seek and may in some significant measure attain these ends. But it will never let these values, important as they are, override its central purpose. We value freedom of expression precisely because it provides a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox. Free speech is a barrier to the tyranny of authoritarian or even majority opinion as to the rightness or wrongness of particular doctrines or thoughts.

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Shock, hurt, and anger are not consequences to be weighed lightly. No member of the community with a decent respect for others should use, or encourage others to use, slurs and epithets intended to discredit another’s race, ethnic group, religion, or sex. It may sometimes be necessary in a university for civility and mutual respect to be superseded by the need to guarantee free expression. The values superseded are nevertheless important, and every member of the university community should consider them in exercising the fundamental right to free expression.

Yale has not entirely backtracked on its commitment to free speech. On the contrary, Yale President Peter Salovey professes continued adherence to it. Yet the case of Trent Colbert shows that it is a recidivist offender, even or especially at the law school. Aaron Sibarium’s Free Beacon update on Colbert’s case reports on the related “convulsions.” Not everyone there is happy about the law school’s performance or its patent dishonesty in accounting for it in Colbert’s case.

Yale Law School administrators including Dean Heather Gerken, Associate Dean Ellen Cosgrove, and diversity czar Yaseen Eldik owe Colbert an apology. In the spirit Cosgrove and Eldik showed Colbert, I offered to draft one for them. Reading Sibarium’s update on the story, however, I learn that Daniel Burnettt precedes me. Burnett has drafted an apology on behalf of FIRE for the Yale administrators. It is posted here; I have embedded it below. The FIRE apology lacks an expression of repentance for the law school’s mistreatment and disparagement of Colbert. It also lacks an acknowledgement of the administration’s dishonesty in its public statements. I would require both in this case, but Burnett’s draft is a good start.

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