A brief history of free speech at Yale

Freedom of speech didn’t become officially protected at the Ivy League school until 1974

Students walk on the campus of Yale Universityon Nov. 12. Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS

Even though Yale University is one of the nation’s oldest colleges, freedom of speech didn’t become an explicit value on campus until the 1970s.

A debate over free speech has been raging at Yale ever since a professor sent an email defending students’ rights to wear potentially offensive Halloween costumes as an expression of free speech. After backlash from students, she recently announced that she will no longer teach at the college. But, before that announcement, more than 60 faculty members signed an open letter in her defense, emphasizing that of all the university’s values, “none is more central than the value of free expression of ideas.’’


It hasn’t always been that way. Freedom of speech wasn’t protected at Yale until 1974, when the university created a document called the Woodward Report. The report’s central premise is that intellectual growth and discovery “clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.’’

That idea was a long time coming. The Ivy League school, which was founded in 1701, opposed freedom of expression from its very beginnings. Early faculty members swore allegiance to the strict, religious Connecticut “colony creed,’’ and the college itself was founded to promote the power of the Puritan Church. Both students and faculty were required to attend Sabbath services, and were fined twenty shillings if they didn’t attend, according to The Beginnings of Yale. The only university president ever fired was Timothy Cutler, who used an Anglican phrase during a commencement service in 1722.

Centuries later, the university’s president from 1921 to 1937, James Rowland Angell, said he believed there were “social values of greater consequence than the license of every lunatic to mount a soapbox and froth at the mouth.’’ He wouldn’t allow speakers who had what he considered to be offensive views, according to an article in Yale Alumni Magazine.


That all changed by 1963. In the midst of the national debate on civil rights and racial equality, the Yale Political Union invited George Wallace, the governor of Alabama who was a vocal white supremacist, to speak. Not long after he accepted, four black girls were killed in the Birmingham Church bombing.

Yale University

Kingman Brewster Jr., the university’s president at the time, asked the union to withdraw its invitation to Wallace. He worried that Wallace’s visit could incite New Haven residents to violence and inflame tensions with the city’s black community. He was widely criticized by faculty members for his attempted censorship, including by a professor named C. Vann Woodward, who was a known expert on the history of the American South.

“The University is in danger of sacrificing principle to expediency,’’ Woodward said at the time. “If the South can afford the risk of violence for the principle of Negro rights, New Haven can, too, for the principle of freedom of speech.’’

The political union did end up retracting its invitation. But because of all of the criticism, Brewster vowed not to interfere with speaker invitations again.

A decade later, in April 1974, a group of Yale students invited William Shockley, a physicist who believed black people were genetically unable to meet the demands of every day life, to a debate. It never happened because student protesters drowned out the speakers by clapping, stomping, and chanting.


Shocked by the response, Brewster appointed his former critic, Woodward, to lead a Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale. The committee submitted the Report of the Committee on Free Expression at Yale, more commonly known as the Woodward Report, in December 1974.

Flyers are seen posted on a college noticeboard on campus at Yale University in New Haven.

But there was a notable omission from the report: It didn’t address freedom of expression regarding student interactions.

In 1986, a student named Wade Dick was put on probation after distributing fliers that mocked gay and lesbian people. Dick argued that his fliers were protected under the Woodward Report. The committee that placed him on probation eventually reinstated him at the university and expunged the incident from his record.

The Woodward Report has been referenced in other free speech issues on campus in recent years, including when members of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity publicly chanted jokes making light of rape. The fraternity was suspended because the chants were seen as threats, which aren’t protected under free speech.

The recent race-based protests have brought the Woodward Report into the spotlight again. When he responded to a list of demands from a group of Yale students, Salovey said, “Yale’s long history, even in these past two weeks, has shown a steadfast devotion to full freedom of expression.’’

He added that the college also needs to stop believing its commitment to diversity “conflicts with our commitment to free speech, which is unshakeable.’’



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