Yale hit by free speech row

By Jake New, for Inside Higher Ed

September 15, 2014

At Yale University’s Freshman Assembly last month, Peter Salovey, Yale’s president, urged students to avoid the kind of speaker policing that has happened at so many other campuses of late.

“Invitations to provocative speakers have been withdrawn; politicians, celebrities, and even university presidents invited to deliver commencement addresses have – under pressure – declined to speak to graduates;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,” Salovey said. “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.”

Now, a little over two weeks after the assembly, Yale is facing just that sort of episode – and the guest in question is one of those Salovey alluded to in his remarks.

In the spring, Ayaan Hirsi Ali – a women’s rights activist and a vocal, often controversial critic of Islam – was invited to receive an honorary degree from Brandeis University. Following outcry on campus and beyond, and a student-created petition that generated thousands of signatures, the university rescinded its invitation. Hirsi Ali will speak tonight at Yale as part of the William F. Buckley Jr. Program, and 36 campus groups (including such diverse organisations as the Women’s Center, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Yale Friends for Israel) are voicing concerns similar to those raised at Brandeis.

In a letter to the William F. Buckley Jr. Program signed by the groups, the Muslim Student Association wrote that it felt “highly disrespected” by Hirsi Ali’s invitation and asked that the event include other speakers. Hirsi Ali has received praise for her work fighting for women’s rights and against female genital mutilation, but has been criticised for what some consider to be overly broad critiques of Islam and Muslims that ignore the geographical and political context.

When reached for comment about the debate, Yale provided a statement from Sharon Kugler, the university’s chaplain.

“We understand and affirm Yale’s commitment to free expression within an educational context,” Kugler stated. “We are deeply concerned, however, by Ms Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s long record of disparaging, and arguably hateful, comments about Muslims and Islam. To better represent the whole Yale community and its educational goals, we recommend the organisers consider actions to expand the event, such as allowing concerned students to present their perspectives, or adding a scholarly voice to create a more nuanced conversation.”

Free speech experts have long criticised the idea that a group should be told or required to invite contrary speakers to intrude on another guest’s remarks. In an open letter on the subject, the American Association of University Professors said it would be “improper” for campus groups to be “compelled to invite someone they do not want to hear as a condition for inviting someone they do want to hear”.

Robert Shibley, vice-president of the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, said that while he understands that students could “have problems” with Hirsi Ali, asking to alter the event in such a way could stifle free speech in a way similar to how some students have opted to “shout down” campus speakers, an action Salovey referred to in his remarks as “the most troubling of these ‘free speech’ incidents”.

“Student groups have the right to protest speakers, but it shows a disturbing trend toward the idea that people should only be faced with ideas that they find comfortable,” Shibley said. “We’re seeing that again with this situation at Yale. The idea that the remedy to someone you don’t like speaking is to require or demand that a person be up there to contradict what they say, that’s not the right approach. The right approach, and they very well may do this, is to have a counter or follow-up event.”

A Muslim Student Association board member, however, told the Yale Daily News that he doesn’t consider Hirsi Ali’s comments about Islam to be protected under free speech, calling it hate speech, libel, and slander. Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim who was a victim of genital mutilation as a child, has called Islam a “nihilistic cult of death”, and has said that it must be “defeated”.

“We sympathize with the unfortunate circumstances that Ms Hirsi Ali faced in her Muslim household as a child and we recognize that such experiences do exist in many countries, including Muslim-majority ones,” the group wrote. “Our concern is that Ms Hirsi Ali is being invited to speak as an authority on Islam despite the fact that she does not hold the credentials to do so. In the past, under such authority, she has overlooked the complexity of sociopolitical issues in Muslim-majority countries and has purported that Islam promotes a number of violent and inhumane practices.”

Legally, Hirsi Ali’s comments are neither slander or libel, Shibley said.

“Hate speech doesn’t have a definition in American law, and libel and slander both have to do with individuals not religions,” Shibley said. “It’s sad to see that kind of misunderstanding creeping in among students, and sometimes even faculty.”

Lauren Noble, the founder and executive director of the Buckley Program, said the event will take place as originally planned. Noble said she found the group’s letter and Kugler’s statements to be at odds with Salovey’s plea for free speech. 

“The chaplain’s statement reveals a misunderstanding of spirit of free expression,” she said. “At the end of the day, though, President Salovey’s leadership on this issue is what matters, and his contribution has been very valuable.”

The outcry over Hirsi Ali’s invitation was not the only free speech incident at Yale in recent weeks.

Also this month, Rev Bruce M. Shipman resigned as priest-in-charge of the Episcopal Church at the university, amid a controversy over a letter he wrote. The letter to The New York Times responded to an article about rising anti-Semitism in Europe by saying that the author of that piece “makes far too little of the relationship between Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza and growing anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond”. Critics said that he was blaming Jews for anti-Semitism, a charge he denied. Shipman said he was sent “an avalanche of hate mail”. 

In his remarks last month, Salovey told students that it was important to differentiate between hate speech and speech that might simply offend. 

“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,” he said. 

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