‘The New York Times’, Yale, and Sissygate

Last week, I had the pleasure of having my first op-ed published in The New York Times, and I was pleased (and a little surprised) when the letters to the editor that were published the next day were overwhelmingly positive.

The op-ed changed a lot during the editing process, evolving from what started as a piece primarily about restrictions on election-related student speech. (For more on that front, see several cases my colleague Will Creeley talked about in greater detail in a recent piece for The Huffington Post.) Switching gears, the editors in particular wanted me to add some discussion of elite colleges.

Thankfully, that wasn’t very hard — my new book, Unlearning Liberty: Censorship and the End of American Debate, has an entire chapter just devoted to censorship at Harvard and Yale. So I chose one fairly recent, very silly case from Yale, which I had previously written about for The Huffington Post.

As you may or may not know, Yale and Harvard have a football rivalry. Every year students and alumni get very excited about what they call “The Game.” And every year, Yale and Harvard students figure out new ways to insult each other. In 2009, Yale freshmen took a highbrow approach, plastering a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel This Side of Paradise on that year’s annual “Game” T-shirt: “I think of all Harvard men as sissies,” the T-shirt read. The Yalies added “WE AGREE” underneath.

Just for context’s sake, the full quote reads:

“I want to go to Princeton,” said Amory. “I don’t know why, but I think of all Harvard men as sissies, like I used to be, and all Yale men as wearing big blue sweaters and smoking pipes.”

But for Yale, this was a literary reference gone too far. After complaints, Dean Mary Miller pulled the T-shirt, stating, “What purports to be humor by targeting a group through slurs is not acceptable.”

The issue may have ended there. After all, many students are distressingly comfortable with curtailments on their speech. But the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work) drew attention to what Yale had done, writing the university a letter and asking it to account for its decision to ban an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote. Months later, Yale President Richard Levin expressed “regret” over the incident, stating belatedly that Yale “would not want to give any students the impression that the content of their speech is subject to censorship” by contradicting the university’s powerful and inspiring promises of freedom of speech on campus.

Generally, I think of this case as pretty high on the ridiculousness scale and my editors at The New York Times apparently thought so, as well. I had come to believe that reasonable people would agree that this was a case of an absurd overreaction, but then I saw this student response to my piece in the Yale Daily News by Hannah Schwarz about my article.

Apparently, many at Yale still believe that sissy should be a verboten word. Even Isaac Park, the head of Yale’s chapter of the ACLU, declared it a “slur,” as it “disparages men for not conforming to gender roles.” And again, this is the head of the campus ACLU. Another student is quoted as saying “sissies wasn’t particularly offensive in Fitzgerald’s day; it’s pretty offensive now.” Actually, as I will argue below, I believe it’s the opposite. Then it was an insult that might prompt a man to fight; now it’s an ironic, old-fashioned joke.

The student response brings me back to the harm to public discourse I discuss in detail in Unlearning Liberty. To the students who supported the ban, to the Dean who ordered it, and to the students who still support the banning of a T-shirt with the word “sissy” on it, three very important things don’t matter:

First, the fact that Fitzgerald clearly did not mean it as a homophobic slur in context. The character was saying he didn’t used to be very tough and mature; he is not saying he used to be gay.

Second, in common usage, sissy is not a homophobic slur, and forgive me if I’m just assuming that Stanford kids talk much differently than Yale kids, but anybody using the word “sissy” among people my age and younger is almost always making an ironic joke. It’s an anachronistic insult, and if someone I knew was calling someone else a sissy, they would primarily be making fun of themselves for using such a ridiculously outdated term.

Third, the phrase was not intended as a homophobic slur by the freshman class. As the Yale Daily News reported, the Freshman Class Council president “said the council had thought the Fitzgerald quote simply represented the traditional rivalry between Yale and Harvard,” and were apparently shocked it was interpreted by some students and Miller that way. But, when the rule inches toward “you are automatically guilty anytime you offend somebody,” intentions, context, and actual standard meaning don’t matter very much.

Thankfully, at least one student commentator made the point that even if it was a slur, it should still have been allowed. As student Nate Zelinsky was quoted: “The problem with banning slurs or offensive speech is that any standard is inherently subjective. Who decides what counts as offensive? You? Me? Mary Miller?”

But there’s a more serious side to the story. In her article, Hannah Schwarz writes:

Whereas free speech laws tend to be mostly black and white (the Westboro Baptist Church ruling was 8-1, after all), schools are a different story. An iffier story, a very grey story. Although Tinker v. Des Moines established that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” schools are also supposed to foster tolerant environments.

Of course, I’m a little concerned that Schwarz didn’t know that Tinker is a case dealing with the rights of high school students and wouldn’t apply to a private college like Yale. But what really concerned me was that after a generation of campus speech codes, this quote strikes me as further evidence that somehow the expectation of what campuses are supposed to be like has been turned on its head.

Rather than it being socially accepted that universities should have the maximum tolerance for freedom of speech, the opposite expectation seems to be in place. Universities have succeeded in convincing some students that a campus’ role is primarily to promote a tolerant, comfortable, inoffensive environment. Sometimes this is referred to as a “safe space.”

What I find so troubling about this is that if universities are to be “safe spaces,” they should be safe spaces to engage in thought experimentation, argument, devil’s advocacy, discourse, and genuine candor, even if it is sometimes offensive. Campuses should be an environment safe enough that students can occasionally be wrong about things so they can learn more about the world and talk to people across lines of political, religious, and ideological differences.

I believe that a well-functioning university must be safe for freedom of speech and not so obsessed with any claim of offense. It’s hard “to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable,” as Yale’s own policies exhort students to do, if they must do so while walking on eggshells.

The second, more serious part of this case is that at the very same time it was taking place, a much bigger controversy was going on. That same fall, Yale University intervened in the publication of a book set to be published by Yale University Press called The Cartoons That Shook The World. The book was about the Mohammed cartoons, and the author, Jytte Klausen, had been told that the actual cartoons would be published in the book. This makes sense, as people should actually be able to see what all those people died for in the rioting launched by the images.

But Yale University disagreed and went ahead with preventing a book about the Mohammed cartoons from having any images of the Mohammed cartoons in it whatsoever, even those that had never previously been controversial. The American Association of University Professors, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Federation of Teachers, the College Art Association, the Modern Language Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Education Association, and, of course, FIRE all protested the decision, as did a number of additional groups and university professors, including Eugene, but to no avail.

Indeed, in the very same letter President Levin expressed regret for Yale’s overreaction to the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, he stood by the decision to ban the cartoons.

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