From the Editor

Art and free speech

Yale's policy on free speech says that a university must provide the freedom to "think the unthinkable" and "discuss the unmentionable." Most people on campus would likely put Aliza Shvarts's senior art project in both of those categories. Repeatedly inseminating oneself while taking abortifacients every month? Unthinkable. Preserving the blood for nine months to use in an artwork? Unmentionable, at least in polite company. (For more, see Light & Verity.)

Shvarts's project has almost no defenders at Yale. The pro-choice and pro-life groups are united in shock. Yale College dean Peter Salovey issued a strikingly un-administrator-like statement, leading off with "I am appalled."

Yale administrators, like the rest of the world, found out about the project after Shvarts sent a press release to the Yale Daily News. Late on the same day the News story appeared, the university released a statement saying Shvarts had told officials she was never pregnant. But then Shvarts published an essay in the News, denying that she had ever made a denial. Shvarts is enamored of the "poignant" ambiguity in the fact that no one, including herself, knows "whether there was ever a fertilized ovum or not"—so that "the act of conception occurs when the viewer assigns the term 'miscarriage' or 'period' to that blood." This is an elegant rhetorical construct, with its seamless congruence between mental concept and physical conceiving. But it's only a meaningless pun. An ovum or blastocyst isn't Schrodinger's cat. We, the public, don't determine its state by our observing or thinking. It is a cell or a group of cells with its own unambiguous physicality. (The background I bring to this complicated topic: I am pro-choice but suffered very much over a miscarriage of my own.)

Yale told Shvarts she can't exhibit her work unless she says publicly that she did not try to induce miscarriage. To date, Shvarts has been silent.

Which brings us back to Yale's free-speech policy. The administration hasn't discussed with the rest of the campus how it reconciles that policy with its decision to quash Shvarts's project. There are several reasonable arguments Yale officials might make. For one, if Shvarts did take abortifacients every month for nine months, she put her own health at risk. That would be entirely her choice if she were an independent artist in Soho, but this is a project sanctioned by a university for a degree. Further, speech and action are not the same; inseminating oneself for the express purpose of inducing (possible) abortions isn't just thinking the unthinkable, but doing it.

Nevertheless, these aren't easy issues. We still have an art student whose project has been, so far, truncated. And while the "abortion art" episode will end, Yale will be grappling with speech issues for as long as the university stands. Its policy, crafted in 1974, states the need for "unfettered freedom," elaborating: "To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views."

Those are principles worth studying. If Yale held a panel on free speechwith faculty and administrators talking about the Shvarts case and others, and explaining how they balance free-speech rights with the need to run a coherent university on sound pedagogical principlesit could turn Shvarts's ill-conceived project into an entirely new discussion, this one a discussion worth having. 

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