Yale faculty at center of protests criticized Harvard’s ‘free-speech surveillance state’

The origins of Erika and Nicholas Christakis’s controversial Halloween email at Yale can be seen in a 2012 op-ed about Harvard.

Yale University students and faculty rallied to demand that Yale University become more inclusive last week.
Yale University students and faculty rallied to demand that Yale University become more inclusive last week. –Arnold Gold / AP

The Yale faculty members whose emails about Halloween costumes are roiling the New Haven campus previously made similar criticisms of politically correct college culture when they worked at Harvard.

Back in 2012, married couple Erika and Nicholas Christakis wrote a Time op-ed that criticized Harvard’s aggressive response to an inflammatory flyers that had been placed under students’ doors. The flyers were for a fake all-male social club and said “Jews need not apply,’’ “Coloreds OK,’’ and made a reference to rohypnol, a date rape drug. The flyers were strongly condemned by Harvard administrators, who launched an investigation to find the authors.

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The Christakises wrote that the flyers were an obvious example of satire and should be protected as free speech. They flyers did not target Jews, blacks, or women but the “institutional bigotry and sexism’’ of the all-male clubs, they wrote.

Harvard’s attempts to protect hurt students only “infantilizes’’ them, they wrote, and distracts them from actually addressing the underlying social problems being targeted. These are the consequences of living in what they called a “free-speech surveillance state,’’ they wrote.

“[W]hen we get bogged down in concerns about safeguarding people’s feelings, we can lose sight of much more important values that protect all of us, first among them the right to think and speak freely,’’ the Christakises wrote. “If our brightest and most capable young adults can’t be trusted to think for themselves, who can? And if our greatest American universities won’t protect words, who will?’’

The three-year-old opinion has renewed relevance after Erika and Nicholas Christakis — now the associate master and master, respectively, of Yale residential college Silliman College — waded into a similar debate at Yale. In response to a Intercultural Affairs Committee email that told students to avoid culturally insensitive costumes, Erika Christakis wrote in an email to students that universities “have become places of censure and prohibition.’’

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“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?’’ she wrote. “Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.’’

The email provoked a strong critical reaction from students in the form of an open letter to Christakis, protests on campus, and calls that they should resign. A student also publicly lambasted Nicholas Christakis about the email in a heated confrontation last Thursday.

The controversial email came not long after students alleged that someone at a Yale Sigma Alpha Epsilon party told black women that only “white girls’’ were welcome. The inflamed atmosphere at the campus on racial issues follows the high-profile protests seen at the University of Missouri and Ithaca College, among others.

Erika and Nicholas Christakis apologized on Friday in a jointly signed email, though Yale remains in the middle of a heated debate. More than 1,100 people attended Yale’s “teach-in’’ on race on Wednesday night, the Yale Daily News reports.

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