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Free Speech Thugs

By Jia LYNN Yang

When Yale sophomore and anti-war activist Katherine Lo hung an American flag upside-down from her window, she must have known that her actions would be somewhat incendiary. The U.S. flag code states that Old Glory is never to be displayed down “except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.”

What Lo couldn’t have realized was that she had just set in motion a series of baffling and outrageous events.

Within 24 hours, a group of men armed with a two-by-four arrived at her door and tried to storm into her room, Lo later reported to police. Unable to enter, they then allegedly left a note on her whiteboard: “I love kicking Muslims ass bitches ass! They should all die with Mohammad. We as Americans should destroy them and launch so many missiles their mothers don’t produce healthy offspring. Fuck Iraq Saddam following fucks. I hate you, GO AMERICA.”

It was an inauspicious beginning. The story led the front page of the Yale Daily News on April 9, and then, as if on cue, a rash of more intimidating incidents began being reported. A vicious, hate-spewing message directed at anti-war protesters was allegedly scrawled onto a poster in front of the Afro-American Cultural Center; a student returning from a vigil for Iraqi civilian casualties said he was spit on; students who had hung flags upside-down in solidarity with Lo reported intruders turning the flags right-side up or stealing them. In two days, a total of six incidents of intimidation were reported to police. And just like that, without warning, it felt like open season on anti-war protesters.

Police are still investigating the incidents, but if all of them actually occurred, it’s a no-brainer what they represent: a giant affront to tolerance and freedom of expression.

This point, though, is perhaps obvious to a fault. For in the days following the slew of incidents being reported, what began on campus as collective outrage quickly outran itself and sputtered into accusations of overworked hysteria and witch hunts targeting pro-war students. Somewhere, the issue most urgent and in plainest view—the breakdown of intellectual discourse at a university—got lost in the shuffle.

From the beginning, the entire campus failed to unite under the cause of rescuing free speech at Yale. Anti-war protesters tied the violence of some of the alleged incidents to the violence in Iraq, and those who wanted to express support for Lo hung flags upside-down from their windows, too. In other words, free speech had become tied to an unambiguous anti-war view. These displays of solidarity were gutsy, but what of the students who support both free expression and the war?

A group called Concerned Students at Yale (CSY) has been at the vanguard of criticizing the administration for its initially tepid response to the crimes, staging a brief stand-off at Woodbridge Hall (Yale’s Mass. Hall-equivalent) two Fridays ago. The anti-Muslim invective allegedly left on Lo’s door rightly invited serious concerns about racism on campus. CSY says it’s now working on the broader problem of racial and ethnic insensitivity—a problem it claims is endemic to the administration and the student body. This may be an initiative long overdue, but we still have to address how the discussion of our foreign policy became so debased so quickly. If this campus indeed has thugs easily provoked by anti-war protest, they brandish a bigotry that isn’t merely racial, but intellectual.

That the goal of salvaging legitimate debate had been left by the wayside became even clearer last week when a student came forward and said he was now under investigation by the Yale police solely because of his pro-war views. Sometime between the first reported crime and the campus’ outpouring of indignation, free speech managed to take another hit.

But perhaps all the head-scratching is unwarranted. Isn’t it possible that this entire episode at Yale was just a fluke? After all the public outcry, it’s unlikely anyone will pull off any more stunts. And there’s certainly the temptation to think of the alleged perpetrators as shadowy figures who have come and gone.

Yet the reaction to these alleged incidents indicates something very real, and not likely confined to Yale.

It suggests a discomfort with political dissent, and an inclination for everyone to toe their respective ideological lines, rather than confront difficult questions. This campus missed an enormous chance to ask the questions sparked by Lo’s flag: Whose opinions are we willing to entertain seriously even if we disagree with them? To what extent do we temper our unequivocal support of free speech when faced with ideas we find distasteful?

I imagine those who might have perpetrated that first reported crime aren’t cowering in a bunker somewhere, contrite and fearful of being found out by an angry mob. They might even be amused that after all the hullabaloo they’ve caused around here, we still haven’t learned how to talk to one another. For while we were busy feeling self-righteous, we let them—and a good deal of our intellectual honesty—slip away.

Jia Lynn Yang, a Junior at Yale, is the Editorials Editor of the Yale Daily News.

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