Yale student protesters allegedly spit on free speech advocates

Students at Yale University are reacting with outrage to the suggestion that freedom of expression trumps their sensitivities, allegedly even spitting on attendees at a free speech rally.

During a conference on “The Future of Free Speech” Friday evening hosted by the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale, student activists became incensed by a comment made by one of the speakers that was posted on social media, leading them to converge on the auditorium in an effort to disrupt the event, The Yale Daily News reports.

The disruption was prompted by a remark from Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and a speaker at the conference, who said, “[l]ooking at the reaction to [Silliman College Associate Master] Erika Christakis’ email, you would have thought someone wiped out an entire Indian village.”

Lukianoff was referring to an email that Christakis had sent on October 30 in response to a previous mass email in which the school’s Intercultural Affairs Committee reminded students to avoid potentially offensive Halloween costumes, saying that while students “definitely have a right to express themselves, we would hope that people would actively avoid those circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.”

Christakis took exception with the email and chose to pen one of her own.

“As some of you may be aware, I teach a class on ‘The Concept of the Problem Child,’ and I was speaking with some of my students yesterday about the ways in which Halloween—traditionally a day of subversion for children and young people—is also an occasion for adults to exert their control,” Christakis wrote, adding that in contrast to past concerns about things like candy, “this year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween.”

While asserting that she “[doesn’t] wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community,” Christakis argued that the drive to avoid offense has begun to supersede the more important principle of free expression.

“Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense—and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes—I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”

Many students, apparently, did not agree with Christakis’ position, nor with her recommendation that those who take offense at another student’s Halloween costume should either “look away, or tell them you are offended.” At one point, some students even began calling for the resignation of both Christakis and her husband, Silliman College Master Nicholas Christakis, with an online petition that has since been taken down.

Last Thursday, moreover, Lukianoff captured video footage of a confrontation between Nicholas Christakis and a group of angry students who were demanding that he apologize for defending the content of his wife’s email.

“I have said I am sorry for causing you pain,” Christakis tells the students. “That is different from the statement that I am sorry for what I said.”

“Do you fundamentally stand behind free speech?” one student asks him.

“I stand behind free speech, yes I do,” Christakis responds. “Even when it’s offensive … especially when it’s offensive.”

“Even when it denigrates me?” another student asks.

“Even when I don’t agree with the content of the speech,” he assures the crowd. “I have the same objections to the speech that you do … but I defend the right of people to speak their minds.”

Christakis’ impassioned defense of free speech, in which he also voiced vehement support for the speech rights of students of color, failed to placate the protesters, who continued to demand that he apologize for supporting his wife’s email, which one student said had made her feel that Yale was no longer a “safe space” for her.

Freedom of speech was likewise a target during Friday’s conference, even before Lukianoff’s reference to Christakis’ controversial email.

The Daily News claims that one student, Edward Columbia, a white male who did not register for the event, showed up near the beginning of the event and began displaying signs at the front of the room stating, “Stand with your sisters of color. Now, here. Always, everywhere.” Several attendees related that Columbia was tolerated at first, but had to be forcibly removed by security when he began shouting and interrupting the speakers.

He was soon replaced, however, by a group of Native American and other students of color that arrived to protest Lukianoff’s statement, though they were denied entrance to the event because the auditorium was at capacity and they had not pre-registered.

“You have a right to free expression, and so do the people inside,” Dean of Student Engagement Burgwell Howard said from the podium near the end of the event, addressing the protesters. “As long as there’s a clear path [to allow attendees to leave the conference] you can hold up your signs.”

The demonstrators remained outside the building until the conference ended, and while they did heed Howard’s request that they not block the exit, several attendees told The Daily News that they were spat on as they made their way through the crowd of protesters.”

One of the students leading the protest, Mitchell Rose Bear Don’t Walk, said she could not confirm that the spitting incident had actually occurred, but that if it had, she would consider it “disgraceful.”

According to The Daily Caller, Yale alumni have started an online fundraising campaign to finance free speech education for school administrators and faculty, saying they are “concerned about the erosion of tolerance for free thought on campus,” and so plan to send members of the university community copies of a well-known book outlining the case for free speech on college campuses.

“If you are concerned about the future of the American university, in New Haven or elsewhere, please donate as many copies of ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ as you can afford,” the website instructs visitors. “The classic tome on liberal education and the threats to free thought faced by American campuses will be sent en masse to President Salovey, Dean Holloway, the masters of each residential college (with the notable and obvious exception of Silliman, which master stood alone in defending free thought), faculty, and students.”

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