Big Stuff (Life Management)

Free Speech — A View From Yale

In the last few years, there’s been an increasingly polarizing discussion around freedom of speech and values in the US — especially on college campuses. It reminded me that in contrast to the he said / she said of political debate, Yale took a much more thoughtful view on the topic starting 4 decades ago.

Yale’s President Peter Salovey referenced these two issues in his freshman addresses of 2014: On Freedom of Expression at Yale and 2015: On Calhoun College. Most people haven’t dealt into these items so I’m summarizing them here.

The Press View vs. On The Ground — Yale Students As Separated As The Press Makes Them Out To Be

Two years ago, there was a big conversation at Yale around the treatment of people of color at Yale. Eventually, this made it into the national news and from the news reports, you’d think that the campus had fractured irreparably into two sides — the free speech supporters and the protesters.

When I went to campus and asked people about this, the real situation was very different. Most people said that they didn’t realize a lot of the issues that people of color were having and they wanted to learn and listen more. The news narrative was about picking sides, the reality on campus was about coming together.

Freedom of Speech and The Woodward Report

Yale has been thinking about freedom of speech for decades.(1)At the time, Nicolas Christakis was a flashpoint at Yale. There’s a great interview that he did with Sam Harris about this experience. The ’60s were a very hard time on the Yale campus — with important (and sometimes destructive) protests and counter protests. In order to thoughtfully determine it’s policy on speech on campus, Yale looked to C. Vann Woodward, a professor of the American South to come up with a policy on how to deal with this issue. President Salovey summarizes the report in his freshman address in 2014. The full report makes for a dry, but fascinating read on how similar issues of freedom of speech and protest were 40 years ago. The key points of the report is highlighted in the initial quotes:

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter.

John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644

If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., U.S. v. Schwimmer, 1928

Here are some major points from the work:

  1. The purpose of a university is to create knowledge: “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.”
  2. Value the pursuit of truth over consensus:  “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. “

Woodward also talks about doing all of this in a forum that avoids malice and gamesmanship. We all need to be searching for the truth together.

The Renaming of Monuments and Calhoun College

This one is even more interesting because we were able to watch it unfold at Yale. John Calhoun was most famous for the espousement of slavery as a positive good for black people.

To follow some of the key points, President Salovey formally started the discussion in his freshman address of 2015 titled Launching a difficult conversation where he laid out the key issues. In a surprise decision, Yale decided not to retain the name of Calhoun College because it didn’t want to whitewash history and avoid the american legacy of slavery. However, this caused quite an uproar on campus. While the notion to remember an age of slavery is important to education, having to live in a college named one of this country’s most famous racists does not drive forward the best values of the university.

So President Salovey convened a renaming committee. The committee eventually decided to rename Calhoun after creating a set of principles  on renaming. These principles point to the naming of buildings and monuments as representing the values of the university. The monuments we have represent cornerstones of our culture and become of a formal representation of “Who we are.” The key findings of the committee are:

  • There is a strong presumption against renaming a building on the basis of the values associated with its namesake. Such a renaming should be considered only in exceptional circumstances.
  • Principles to be considered:
    • Is a principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University?
    • Was the relevant principal legacy significantly contested in the time and place in which the namesake lived?
    • Did the University, at the time of a naming, honor a namesake for reasons that are fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University?
    • Does a building whose namesake has a principal legacy fundamentally at odds with the University’s mission, or which was named for reasons fundamentally at odds with the University’s mission, play a substantial role in forming community at the University?

Going Forward

When looking at freedom of speech there’s a lot to be learned from thoughtful deliberation that we don’t get in today’s national conversation.


1. At the time, Nicolas Christakis was a flashpoint at Yale. There’s a great interview that he did with Sam Harris about this experience.