Serena Cho, Yale Daily News, September 19, 2019
“All this ICE but no detention centers in sight,” read the caption, beneath an Instagram photo of a Yale junior smiling amid a backdrop of snowy mountains.
Was the gaffe a distasteful joke or an affront to undocumented immigrants? Yale administrators and faculty disagreed. Screenshots of the post — a play on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and ice itself — quickly went viral on social media. Students denounced the junior for joking about the plight of undocumented immigrants, who sometimes spend weeks and months in border detention facilities. Tweets criticizing the post received thousands of likes and more than 900 retweets. One student said he is “glad to see that Yale is still prepping for the future generations of Kavanaughs.” Others urged their peers to email the head of the junior’s residential college, psychology professor Laurie Santos and demanded consequences for the junior.
“I have now heard about this incident from many, many students,” Santos wrote in the email, which was obtained by the News. “I’m upset that a member of my community would post something like this and I will take action on it. I will be bringing this up with the proper channels.”
While some students said they appreciated Santos’ note, many members of the University community voiced concerns about the email’s implications on whether administrators and faculty members have the jurisdiction to regulate students’ speech.
English professor David Bromwich said the idea that the junior “should somehow be punished, or cited to justify a reprimand, seems a clear overreach of authority.”
“[Of] course the result [of Santos’ email] would be to chill speech generally,” Bromwich said. “People say silly things like this all the time, on campus and in everyday life elsewhere. Will you install microphones in the potted plants and try to catch them all?”
In an email to the News on Wednesday, Santos said in hindsight, she “would have worded things differently to make it clearer that what I wanted to do was gather more information — that was the action I had in mind.”
According to University President Peter Salovey, heads of colleges do not have the right to regulate students’ free speech, irrespective of whether they agree with students or not. They should create inclusive and welcoming environments and sponsor regular programs to promote the free exchange of ideas, Salovey said. In an interview with the News earlier this month, Salovey explained that members of the University should be “willing to tolerate the intolerable” to avoid going “down a slippery slope of regulating speech [and] deciding what’s offensive and what’s not.”
The debate over Santos’ email comes almost exactly four years after another free speech controversy cast Silliman College and its then-Master and then-Associate Master Nicholas Christakis and Erika Christakis into the national spotlight. In 2015, an email from Erika Christakis defending students’ right to wear “offensive” Halloween costumes prompted widespread backlash on campus, and many students, faculty members and alumni voiced concerns on how controversial opinions are treated on Yale’s campus.
To learn more about the state of free speech at Yale, the News distributed a survey to all first years, sophomores, juniors and seniors. The results were not adjusted for selection bias.
When asked how comfortable they felt sharing their opinions at Yale, 63 percent of the 905 sophomore, juniors and seniors who answered the question said they were either “comfortable” or “very comfortable.” 15 percent said they were “uncomfortable” expressing their thoughts, while only 8 percent said they felt “very uncomfortable.”
But in an interview with the News, Bromwich said diversity of opinion is a measure of free speech. For his part, Thomas Kadri GRD ’23 — who is a fellow at the Yale Information Society Project — added that while people should have the right to speak freely, free speech does not mean that people cannot criticize others if they dislike what is said.
“That said, it might also be worrying if many students ‘fear’ the ‘consequences’ of expressing their ideas and opinions,” Kadri added. “Quite how worrying it is would depend on a few things, I think. Are their fears reasonable? What do they actually fear will happen — criticism, social ostracism, bad grades on assignments, worse job prospects?”
American Studies professor Matt Jacobson said that while the University may have some work to do, feeling uncomfortable is “emphatically not a ‘free speech’ issue of the constitutional sort.” Self-censorship is different from government censorship, and is in some cases “an organic response to the contending interests and the internalized dissonance brought about by social change and societal polarization,” Jacobson said.
He added that even if the climate issues on campus are very real and need to be addressed, it is important to recognize that there is a concerted effort on the right to use free speech as an instrument to advance a particular agenda, such as framing discrimination of ethnic, religious and racial minorities as freedom of expression.