At a number of colleges in the early 1970s, practitioners of free speech were being regularly chased off campus. In 1972 at Yale, for instance, Gen. William Westmoreland arrived and left without speaking because the hall was packed with enemies sworn to shout down every word. Two years later, William Shockley and Roy Innis tried to debate at Yale and an integrated mob shouted them down. Kingman Brewster, the university's president at the time, was disturbed -- primarily because so disruptive a fellow as Shockley had been invited on campus in the first place.
In reaction to these assaults on the very reason for a university, a team of faculty members, students, administrators and alumni issued in 1975 a "Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale." Its essence is contained in material that all incoming students must master. Faculty members, too, are expected to know and follow its strong, clear principles.
The report emphasizes, for instance, that a university, above all other places, "must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom," including "the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable and challenge the unchallengeable."
A decade later, the Yale administration is being charged with having dishonored that luminous document during the 10-week strike last fall of the university's clerical and technical workers (a strike that may resume later this month). The accuser is the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, which has sent a report of its findings to Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti and members of the Yale Corporation. Because this is a private university, the First Amendment is not involved, but its spirit surely is, as the 1975 report on freedom of expression at Yale so compellingly made clear.
The Connecticut CLU notes that "a number of professional and managerial employees have been threatened with unfavorable performance evaluations" because they spoke with Yale workers on the picket line "and/or with other professional and managerial employees who the university suspects are critical of its employment policies."
Then there are the graduate students and teaching assistants, who have reported to the Connecticut CLU that they were "advised not to discuss the strike in class or use the strike as a teaching device." (Apparently everything "unmentionable" can be discussed at Yale University except management's labor policies.)
In the computer science department, there is a departmental electronic bulletin board that is the only one read by all of the department's multitude of machines. For many years, this bulletin board has functioned as what, in a public university, would be called a First Amendment forum. That is, it has entertained all kinds of messages, including political statements. During the strike, however, students were told that no strike-related messages could be posted there. When a graduate student protested this constriction of his free-expression rights, his computer accounts were turned off. He no longer had access to the board.
According to the report, when students in one residential college hung banners outside their dormitory rooms backing the union or advocating negotiations (when they were stymied), the master of the college ordered the banners removed because they were "unsightly and illegal." Had the banners instead congratulated President Giamatti for his hard-nosed stance in negotiations, would they have been furled?
During the strike, a doctoral student in epidemiology and public health got back an exam with a grade markedly lower than his average. Attached to the exam was a copy of an open letter the student had written urging faculty and students of the school of medicine to support the strike. The student was being taught a lesson, but not in epidemiology.
In sending the report to Giamatti on Dec. 11, the Connecticut CLU asked him to circulate immediately to all members of the Yale community a memorandum addressing these civil liberties concerns. The president finally replied to the CLU on Jan. 4. He denied none of the specifics in the report nor did he say he was examining the complaints. He did invite the civil liberties union to come see him one day, but Giamatti emphasized that Yale, after all, so cherishes the spirit of the First Amendment that it has "strong and clear policies concerning freedom of expression." And he cited the 1975 Yale report on these matters.
That document noted that the results of free speech are "to the general benefit in the long run, however unpleasant they may appear at the time." At Yale, however, while William Shockley could get himself heard these days, certain expressions of support for striking workers are really too much to expect a great university to endure.