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Woodward Report: One university considers the Limits of protest


Editor's note: Following the disruption of a scheduled debate involving physicist and self-proclaimed genetics expert William B. Shockley last April. Yale University set up a committee to examine the status of freedom of expression at Yale. The Committee, chaired by historian C. Vann Wood ward, made its report in early January, recommending severe sanctions for future disruptions and proposing guidelines for what constitutes acceptible protest against controversial speakers.

The Yale College faculty approved the committee's report on January 16 and sent it on to the Yale Corporation for its action. Yale President kingman Brewster says he supports the report generally, but disagrees with he recommendation that the University administration use persuasion to discourage invitations to overly controversial speakers. Brewster also supports mandatory one year minimum suspensions of convicted disrupters.

The committee's report has generated considerable attention for its reaffirmation of the value of free expression, a value which has come under attack by some who consider it secondary to biker values like equality, truth, or and racism.

What follows is the first section of the committee's report.

The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that the university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom. The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessary also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.

We take a chance, as the First Amendment takes a chance, when we commit ourselves to the idea that the results of free expression are to the general benefit in the long run, however unpleasant they may appear at the time. The validity of such a belief cannot be demonstrated conclusively. It is a belief of recent historical development, even within universities, one embodied in American constitutional doctrine but not widely shared outside the academic world, and denied in theory and in practice by much of the world most of the time.

Because few other institutions in our society have the same central function, few assign such high priority to freedom of expression. Few are expected to. Because no other kind of institution combines the discovery and dissemination of basic knowledge with teaching, none confronts quite the same problems as a university.

For if a university is a place for knowledge, it is also a special kind of small society. Yet it is not primarily a fellowship, a club, a circle of friends, a relics of the civil society outside it. Without sacrificing its central purpose, it cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect. To be sure, these are important values; other institutions may properly assign them the highest, and not merely a subordinate priority; and a good university will seek and may in some significant measure attain these ends. But it will never let these values, important as they are, override its central purpose. We value freedom of expression precisely because it provides a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox. Free speech is a barrier to the tyranny of authoritarian or even majority opinion as the rightness or wrongness of particular doctrines or thoughts.

If the priority assigned to free expression by the nature of a university is to be maintained in practice, clearly the responsibility for maintaining that priority rests with its members. By voluntarily taking up membership in a university and thereby asserting a claim to its rights and privileges, members also acknowledge the existence of certain obligations upon themselves and their fellows. Above all, every member of the university has an obligation to permit free expression in the university. No member has a right to prevent such expression. Every official of the university, moreover, has a special obligation to foster free expression and to ensure that it is not obstructed.

The strength of these obligations, and the willingness to respect and comply with them, probably depend less on the expectation of punishment for violation than they do on the presence of a widely shared belief in the primacy of free expression. Nonetheless, we believe that the positive obligation to protect and respect free expression shared by all members of the university should be enforced by appropriate formal sanctions, because obstruction of such expression threatens the central function of the university. We further believe--that such sanctions should be made explicit, so that potential violators will be aware of the consequences of their intended acts.

In addition to the university's primary obligation to protect free expression there are also ethical responsibilities assumed by each member of the university community, along with the right to enjoy free expression. Though these are much more difficult to state clearly, they are of great importance. If freedom of expression is to serve its purpose, and thus the purpose of the university, it should seek to enhance understanding. Shock, hurt, and anger are not consequences to be weighed lightly. No member of the community with a decent respect for others should use, or encourage others to use, slurs and epithets intended to discredit another's race, ethnic group, religion, or sex. It may sometimes be necessary in a university for civility and mutual respect to be superseded by the need to guarantee free expression. The values superseded are nevertheless important, and every member of the university community should consider them in exercising the fundamental right to free expression.

We have considered the opposing argument that behavior which violates these social and ethical considerations should be made subject to formal sanctions, and the argument that such behavior entitles others to prevent speech they might regard as offensive. Our conviction that the central purpose of the university is to foster the free access of knowledge compiles us to reject both of these arguments. They assert a right to prevent free expression. They rest upon the assumption that speech can be suppressed by anyone who deems it false or offensive. They deny what Justice Holmes termed "freedom for the thought that we hate." They make the majority, or any willful minority, the arbiters of truth for all. If expression may be prevented censored, or punished, because of its content or because of the motives attributed to those who promote it, then it is no longer free. It will be subordinated to other values that we believe to be of lower priority in a university.

The conclusions we draw, then, are these: even when some members of the university fail to meet their social and ethical responsibilities, the paramount obligation of the university is to protect their right to free expression. This obligation can and should be enforced by appropriate formal sanctions. If the university's overriding commitment to free expression is to be sustained, secondary social and ethical responsibilities must be left to the informal processes of session, example, and argument.

* * *

The Committee made specific recommendations to implement its views on what constitutes freedom of expression. Excerpts from the third section of the report follow.

Individuals and groups who object to a controversial speaker should understand the limits of protest in a community committed to the principles of free speech. Let us therefore be clear about those limits.

(1) It is desirable that individuals and groups register in a wide-open and robust fashion their opposition to the views of a speaker with whom they disagree or whom they find offensive. When such a speaker has been invited to the campus by one group, other groups may seek to dissuade the inviters from proceeding. But it is a punishable offense against the principles of the University, for the objectors to coerce others physically or to threaten violence.

(2) The permissible registration of opposition includes all forms of peaceful speech, such as letters to newspaper editors, peaceful assembly, and counter-speeches in appropriate locations. Furthermore, picketing is permissible outside of a building so long as it is peaceful and does not interfere with entrance to or exit from the building or with pedestrian or vehicular traffic outside of a building. It is important to understand, however, that picketing is more than expression. It is expression joined to action. Accordingly, it is entitled to no protection when its effect is coercive.

(3) There is not right to protest within a university building in such a way that any university activity is disrupted. The administration, however, may wish to permit some symbolic dissent within a building but outside the meeting room, for example, a single picket or a distributor of handbills.

(4) In the room where the invited speaker is to talk, all members of the audience are under an obligation to comply with a general standard of civility. This means that any registration of dissent that materially interferes with the speaker's right to proceed is a punishable offense. Of course a member of the audience may protest in a silent, symbolic fashion, for example, by wearing a black arm band. More active forms of protest may be tolerated such as briefly booing, clapping hands, or heckling. But any disruptive activity must stop when the chair or an appropriate university official requests silence. Failure to quit in response to a reasonable request for order is a punishable offense.

(5) Nor does the content of the speech, even parts deemed defamator or insulting, entitle any member of the audience to engage in disruption. While untruthful and defamatory speech may give rise to civil liability it is neither a justification nor an excuse for disruption, and it may not be considered in any subsequent proceeding against offenders as a mitigating factor. Nor are racial insults or other "fighting words" a valid ground for disruption or physical attack, certainly not from a voluntary audience invited but it no way compelled to be present. Only if speech advocates immediate and serious illegal action, such as burning down a library, and there is danger that the audience will proceed to follow such an exhortation, may it be stopped, and then only by an authorized university official or law enforcement officer.

(6) The banning or obstruction of lawful speech can never be justified on such grounds as that the speech or the speaker is deemed irresponsible, offensive, unscholarly, or untrue.

Above all, every member of the university has an obligation to permit free expression in the university. No member has a right to prevent such expression. Every official of the university, moreover, has a special obligation to foster free expression and to ensure that it is not obstructed.

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