Free speech at Yale

The Freshman Address

Peter Salovey ’86PhD is president of Yale University. This speech was delivered twice in Woolsey Hall on August 23 to freshmen and their guests.

Michael Marsland

Michael Marsland

President Peter Salovey ’86PhD welcomed the Class of 2018 with a call to respect and protect free speech on campus. View full image

It is my great pleasure to welcome the members of the Class of 2018 to Yale, along with their families and friends. The provost, deans, masters, and other Yale leaders on the platform today join with me in marking the beginning of what will prove to be the most exciting four years of your lives—at least so far!

I witnessed my first Freshman Assembly when I arrived on campus in 1981 as a graduate student in psychology. I moved here from northern California; perhaps not surprisingly, my entire wardrobe consisted of blue jeans and plaid flannel shirts. And there are photographs to prove it! So, I was astonished as I watched the freshmen head toward Woolsey Hall for the assembly three decades ago: nearly all of them—men and women—were wearing stylish blue blazers. I don’t think I had ever owned a blazer, and I was stunned that Yale still required them. Well, that’s what I thought! I couldn’t come up with any other explanation for why everyone was dressed like Thurston Howell III. (If you did not understand that American television reference from my 1960s childhood, check with your Mom and Dad; it is a test of the globalization of popular culture!)

Of course, it is my closet that is now filled with blue blazers, and as I look out over the great Class of 2018, I see that many other things have changed since my first view of Yale freshmen 33 years ago.

But today I need to turn to something more consequential than sartorial options, something that is as important today as it ever has been on this campus, indeed on every campus in America. I would like to spend our time together discussing a complex issue that is fundamental to an excellent education: free and open expression. And I would like to put that in the context of what it means to be a member of this very special community.

In the last year or two, we have seen more than the usual number of events on college and university campuses across this country in which the freedom to express ideas has been threatened. Invitations to provocative speakers have been withdrawn; politicians, celebrities, and even university presidents invited to deliver commencement addresses have—under pressure—declined to speak to graduates; student protesters have had their signs destroyed by other members of a campus community. In the most troubling of these “free speech” incidents, speakers of various political persuasions have been shouted down and rendered unable to deliver remarks to campus groups who had invited them. Although we have not seen these kinds of episodes at Yale in recent decades, it is important on occasions like this one to remind ourselves why unfettered expression is so essential on a university campus.

Yale’s policies are quite explicit; they are based on a report authored by the late C. Vann Woodward, a Sterling Professor of History who was one of the most eminent scholars of the American South. Born in Arkansas and educated at the University of North Carolina, he spent his early years on the faculty of The Johns Hopkins University and then taught at Yale beginning in 1961. He authored significant works about the “New South” in the twentieth century, and—like your dean—wrote a pivotal book on the era of Jim Crow.

In May 1974, after a controversial speaker was prevented from lecturing in Strathcona Hall, right across the street from here, a speaker whose views many found deplorable—indeed, I would have found them deplorable too, but that is beside the point—the Yale College faculty asked President Kingman Brewster [’41] to appoint a committee to look into free expression on the campus. President Brewster invited Professor Woodward and a group of faculty, administrators, students, and one alumnus to address how Yale should champion free expression. He explicitly charged the committee to consider how free expression relates to peaceful dissenting protest as well as to respect and tolerance within the campus community. The commission issued a report—with one dissenting opinion—in December of that year. The language in the report is so clear and unambiguous that I will quote from it quite extensively today; it has served as a model for policies on many campuses.

The report begins with a preamble that forcefully expresses the issue: “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that the university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom.” 1

Professor Woodward and his colleagues continue in a way that you will often hear quoted during your time at Yale: “The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.… Whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.” Professor Woodward did not mince words: we need to be able to discuss intelligently anything and everything in order to engage each other in the best education possible, one that does not merely reaffirm what you believed to be true before setting foot in New Haven.

My guess is that if I asked for a show of hands to indicate how many of you agree with these statements, nearly all would endorse Professor Woodward’s strong formulation. Putting these clear-headed and lofty goals into practice, however, is not always so straightforward. Perhaps the issue you will confront—even as soon as your first week of classes—is what happens when someone’s ideas are an affront to you? What if someone’s classroom comments seem to be insensitive or, even, insulting? How would such utterances square with our strongly held view that Yale is a “company of scholars [and] a society of friends,” to use the words of another Yale historian, George Pierson [’26, ’33PhD]? 2

We value—indeed treasure—the closeness of our relationships with each other here at Yale, especially given the residential nature of our community. But Woodward argues that if we make “the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect” the “primary and dominant value,” then we risk “sacrificing [the university’s] central purpose,” education and scholarship.

Professor Woodward recognized that placing unfettered academic pursuits above friendship, let alone mutual respect, might be tough advice for us to swallow. And he quickly points out, “To be sure, these are important values… 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.”

Nonetheless, Woodward had a strong sense of where to draw lines, and where not to draw them: “If freedom of expression is to serve its purpose, and thus the purpose of the university, it should seek to enhance understanding,” he tells us. “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.” We would now add sexual orientation and gender identity to this list. “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,” Woodward says, “and every member of the university community should consider them in exercising the fundamental right to free expression.”

What is Woodward telling us? A bedrock commitment to free expression does not give one the right to voice hatred and bigotry without considering whether that expression serves the highest purposes: advancing knowledge and promoting deeper understanding. I doubt that hateful speech will often pass this test. But sometimes it might, for example, when a deeply prejudiced character in a novel or play uses language that makes us shudder. This is why explicit speech codes do not work well on campuses; they can prohibit all offensive speech in nearly every circumstance—or even more problematic, speech that offends some individual at a particular point in time.

At the same time, Yale is a village—an interdependent community built on respect for one another—and Yale’s policies instruct us that we should not decide to shock, hurt, or anger others easily. However, Professor Woodward acknowledged—and we acknowledge—that sometimes the need for greater insight could require us to do so. But we should not take this privilege lightly. We should not offend merely to offend. We should not provoke without careful forethought. Nonetheless, on occasion these reactions can be the consequence of freely expressing well-considered ideas. Woodward was quite clear about where the default lies in this equation: free expression must be protected even when social norms are compromised by the speaker.

Now, I recognize that this can be a challenge for you as it is for all of us. It is my hope, however, that it is not the only difficult dilemma you, the Class of 2018, will face on Yale’s campus during your four years here. There will be times when meaningful lessons can only be learned by gritting our teeth—and then arguing back. There will be times when we inhibit ourselves from freely expressing our thoughts to a peer for fear of offending him or her, only to discover that restraining ourselves from intellectually honest expression is itself insulting or patronizing to the very same person. There will be times—quite frankly—when we will find the ideas of others disgusting. But the answer to speech that offends us is, most often, our own speech: the response to hateful speech is speech that effectively counters the words of hate.

Professor Woodward was quite clear in our responsibilities to each other: “Every member of the university has an obligation to permit free expression in the university. No member has a right to prevent such expression.” This is true especially for ideas that we find reprehensible. The pursuit of new knowledge, the development of critical thinking skills, the nurturing of extraordinary insight and creativity, indeed our growth as humans requires that we confront what we would prefer to avoid, that we engage when it would be far more comfortable to disengage. One of your challenges as Yale freshmen is to become more comfortable disagreeing, whether it is with your classmates, your teachers, or—for that matter—with me!

We all need to bear in mind, however, that offensive speech, which is protected by our policies, is not the same thing as threatening speech, which is not protected. Our tolerance for speech that makes us uncomfortable is not an excuse for harassment or intimidation. Sexually harassing speech, for example, that is sufficiently severe and pervasive can create a hostile and discriminatory environment, and Yale is committed by policy and bound by law to offer its education equally to women and men. 3 And expression accompanied by coercive actions is not protected at Yale. 4 Thus, as clear as our policies are and as bedrock as our commitment is to free expression, we must be mindful of these limits. These limits, along with our own desire and willingness to respect and care for one another, help to sustain our community.

Professor Woodward’s formulations have guided seven Yale presidents. They have stood the test of time not because we are tradition-bound, but because they are principled and wise. For if the university is to stand as an incubator and reservoir of human thought and creativity, as a place where leaders are nurtured and ideas are forged and tested, we must all be able to think freely and express our thoughts to each other. This benefits not only our intellectual village, Yale, but also our nations and the world.

There is no doubt at Yale that we should have zero tolerance for threats and intimidation. We are committed to maintaining Yale as a place that is safe and free of such behavior. Further, the right to free expression does not relieve us of the obligation to think before we speak. That obligation is a responsibility that we willingly assume as members of a community where mutual respect and caring are salient values.

Nonetheless, I recognize that all of us here, in different ways, might also like to live in a campus community where nothing provocative and hurtful is ever said to anyone. And that is the part that I cannot—nor should not—promise you. For if we are not willing to be shocked, then we may not be allowing ourselves to be open to life-changing ideas, ideas that rock our worlds. And isn’t the opportunity to engage with those very ideas—whether to embrace them or dispute them—the reason why you chose Yale?

Welcome Class of 2018!

The comment period has expired.