At Yale, a fiery debate over who’s being silenced

All photos courtesy Philipp Arndt Photography

“This kind of racism in disguise—where a false debate about ‘free speech’ is used to question people of color’s humanity—needs to stop,” declared Yale sophomore Elizabeth Spenst in a piece she wrote during campus protests for racial justice last month. From a distance, that statement reinforces the dominant narrative about student activism at Yale and across the country: that protesters demand exemption from the rules of open discourse.

Spenst, who is black, titled the piece “This Is Not an Op-ed” because she considers her perspective on Yale’s culture of racism to be a matter of fact. If that’s not stipulated, protesters contend, then they are the ones being denied free speech. Their voices can’t be equal in a system skewed to denigrate them.

The piece appeared in Down, an online campus magazine for students of color that Spenst co-founded last spring and for which she serves as editor in chief. I met her recently in a café adjoining Yale’s Bass Library, with a game of ultimate Frisbee underway nearby. Nothing was visibly upended after the protests made national news, but nerves across the New Haven campus were frayed. That weariness, commentators on the right and left conclude, comes from childish oversensitivity, especially toward diverging viewpoints.  

To the aggrieved, that’s absurd. “It’s not a matter of having an intelligent conversation about this over and over again,” Spenst told me. “It’s a matter of, you’re really not getting this very important block of information that you need to understand in order for us to even have that conversation that you want to have. I can’t build that block every single time.”

This block represents the minority experience—at Yale, but often just as an American college student. Some at Yale are exhausted by the burden of being racial spokespeople. Of 5,400 undergraduates, about 10 percent are black, 10 percent are Latino, and 20 percent are Asian. There have been flashpoints of racial controversy on campus, like when the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, a black third-year student, was mistakenly held at gunpoint by police in January, along with brewing tension over issues like faculty diversity. “What’s it like being a minority here?” is a demanding prompt. Lately, that question gets asked relentlessly.

 

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More than 1,000 people joined in the “March of Resilience” on November 9. (Philipp Arndt Photography)

 

After alleged discrimination at a frat party and a convoluted debate about Halloween costumes and free expression, protests erupted at Yale, attracting national attention. Students I spoke with were severely disappointed that news coverage has fixated on concerns over speech suppression. The issue for those actually on the ground, they stressed, is solely institutional racism.

They’re misguided to consider racism and speech as competing issues. Racism seeks to suppress minority voices, on campus as much as anywhere. And, where speech issues arise, journalism challenges follow. 

For debates about free speech, political correctness, and the roadblocks to racial understanding, the media outlets on campus are an essential part of the story. Their staff diversity, slant, and editorial decisionmaking during the ongoing protests offer a window into understanding the tumult at schools like Yale.

These publications are remarkably abundant, from the Yale Daily News, one of the most acclaimed college newspapers in the country, to Down (as in, “down for the cause”), which was created partly in response to perceived hostility toward minorities from the YDN. “It’s glorious how influential campus media is,” says Mark Oppenheimer, a Yale professor and New York Times columnist. “The Yale Daily News and some other campus publications have a reach and significance in their community that The New York Times and other publications would kill to have.” 

Campus media have faced controversy on matters of race nationwide this year; along with Yale, the most visible threats to free speech surfaced at the University of Missouri, where a student journalist was wrongfully blocked from photographing demonstrators. (It’s no coincidence that Yale and Mizzou produced viral video snippets.) Second-guessing the activists can come off as bigoted. Where does that leave journalists, especially student reporters, who are sympathetic peers but also trained skeptics and free speech defenders?

The scenes from Yale were filed away as evidence to some that today’s college activists approach discourse like self-righteous, sophomoric bullies. Protesters seem to expect something antithetical to journalism: to be taken at their word. 

A closer look suggests otherwise. People are understandably resentful of rebuttals if they weren’t allowed to make their case in the first place.

 

Even where to begin is contentious. Students of color take issue with a synopsis of the protests that cites Halloween as the lone catalyst. They are right. The buildup of racial tension at Yale has been years in the making, but outside media caught on after a frat party on Friday, October 30.

The next day, a Yale student wrote in a Facebook post that her friend was turned away from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon party after being told the event was “white girls only.” The woman who wrote the post, which went on to get more than 1,600 likes, said she encountered a similar experience herself at an SAE party last year.

An initial YDN story featured the headline “SAE denies charges of racism.” That treatment incensed some students, who felt it made the denial too prominent and reduced allegations to a he said, she said stalemate.

Here and elsewhere, charges of racism follow a similar path. Accusers feel betrayed by doubters. It’s considered biased to weigh allegations and denials side by side. Victims who describe affronts are mocked as melodramatic. Dialogue is fraught, and reporters have to navigate that minefield.

For all the publications at Yale, only the YDN provides consistent news reporting. Its staff of 200 works in a three-floor office that’s the object of nationwide envy. YDN print editions are omnipresent at dining hall breakfast tables and steer campus conversation, not long after a 3am press time.

Fallout from the “denies charges” story would dog YDN coverage of protests over the next month. Steven Brill, a reporter, entrepreneur, and founder of the Yale Journalism Initiative, which offers training and career guidance for aspiring journalists, says the handling of SAE’s denial followed “Journalism 101.” However, he’s emphatic that the frat incident “should have generated the most obvious form of journalism imaginable, which is, Was that party segregated?”

YDN editors, Brill says, are anxious about appearing insensitive to either side, mainly the protesters. His advice? “Ignore it and just do journalism. Report the facts. You can’t walk on eggshells when you’re doing any type of story.”

 

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Adriana Miele, bottom left, is the only minority female YDN staff columnist. (Philipp Arndt Photography)

 

Stephanie Addenbrooke, a junior who took over as YDN editor in chief in September, met me in her office and said their editorial team decided collectively against speaking with CJR.  

She wrote in a statement, “We encourage anyone on campus to work for us, to write for us, and to share their stories with us. Yet, we know that doesn’t always mean that people will want to, or feel comfortable doing so. We find, though, that most students who come and spend time with us discover that we have a strong commitment to community.”

The YDN does considerable serious reporting on issues such as race. Its magazine supplement featured an impressive report on the lack of faculty diversity, and its opinion pages offer a wide range of guest commentary, including some that oppose recent protests (for which the paper receives undue criticism).

Still, the YDN’s strained relationship with some students isn’t new. “A lot of women of color on campus feel very uncomfortable engaging with the YDN,” says Adriana Miele, the YDN’s only minority female staff columnist.* “Most of the editorial staff tend to be people of white, wealthy backgrounds. And I think that there’s sort of a disconnect between their understandings [and] the experiences of women of color here.”

YDN staffers aren’t paid. Senior editing roles at a college newspaper, especially a daily, can exceed 40-hour weeks. That’s prohibitively time-consuming for those who must keep part-time jobs. As a result, YDN staffers are known for coming from privileged backgrounds. However, one-third of current editorial leadership is women of color. The paper said it doesn’t track the racial makeup of its full staff.

Amid the protests, Miele, a senior, wrote a column urging minority students to cooperate with media. It’s a tough sell. At a meeting for Next Yale, as the campaign for race-based reform is called, Miele informed the others that she was affiliated with the YDN, “and everyone literally just gasped,” she said.

On the same night as the SAE party, students received a peculiar email from Erika Christakis, the wife of an administrator, or “master,” of one of Yale’s 12 residential colleges. That email and its surrounding circumstances have since been picked apart like Bible passages. In sum, Christakis responded to an email from a university Intercultural Affairs Committee, which cautioned against distasteful Halloween outfits. Christakis objected to the “exercise of implied control over college students,” who should be given room to discover whether costumes that included “feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface” cross over into offensive caricatures. 

Junior David Rossler was wrapping production in the Yale Herald newsroom when he received the Christakis email. “My first reaction was that it was sort of stupid, honestly,” says Rossler, who is editor in chief of the weekly paper. “I think there are obvious ways in which it’s an irrational response to the email it responded to.”

“But I wasn’t offended,” he adds, “and I certainly didn’t anticipate what a big deal it would be. A lot of that is because I’m coming at it from a white male perspective, and none of the things that really resonated with some people resonated with me.”

Much of the country soon became aware. Six days later, two significant confrontations took place. Hundreds of students gathered in a courtyard with Jonathan Holloway, the first black dean of Yale College, insisting that he take action against the frat party and the Christakis email.

That afternoon, a four-minute walk from the Holloway encounter, Erika Christakis’ husband, Nicholas, approached students writing messages of support for minority women in chalk on the ground. Reports differ on what ensued. Here’s how Down described the encounter:

Christakis made it clear to the students that his intentions were never benign. Students accused him of addressing them in a condescending manner, reportedly making statements such as: “I’m so glad you’re exercising your right to free speech!” and “What is all this [chalking] for?” and “This is what happens when you read the Constitution.” As he talked at students, Christakis bent over and placed his hands on his knees, similar to a dog owner regarding his pet.

A crowd formed around Christakis and debated his wife’s email for over an hour, several minutes of which were captured on video. At the climax of those clips, a student screams, “Who the fuck hired you? You should step down!”

 

 

Concern over the temperament of young people long precedes recent activism. A September cover story in The Atlantic on “The Coddling of the American Mind” was co-authored by Greg Lukianoff, who also happened to video the Christakis courtyard standoff on his cell phone. Also that month, New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait expounded on his idea of political correctness. “The term has been terribly abused over the years by conservatives,” he explains, “who have used it to describe pretty much any form of liberalism or often just common decency to others.” Rather, Chait believes PC culture describes how the left on university campuses “has grown deeply intolerant of opposing viewpoints.”

National media pounced on the video of the protest as prime evidence of this illiberal streak: Christakis, a model of polite intellectual disagreement; students, a zealous, belligerent mob. Of that avalanche of analysis, the two pieces I heard Yale students object to most often were Conor Friedersdorf’s “The New Intolerance of Student Activism” in The Atlantic and Chait’s “Can We Start Taking Political Correctness Seriously Now?

Friedersdorf writes that good-hearted but hypersensitive students at Yale prefer to stamp out opposition rather than engage with it. “In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings,” he explains. “[P]erhaps it is no surprise that the students behave like bullies even as they see themselves as victims.” Chait says the ideology of campus liberals “prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement.” This perversion of liberal ideals will be protesters’ undoing, he forecasts.

 

Before there was proper coverage of the bare-bones facts, there was already conversation about free speech.

 

In truth, students say, it’s these sort of writers who are disengaged. Four days after the Christakis confrontation, when more than 1,000 people joined in a “March of Resilience,” TV crews descended on New Haven. Throughout that month’s protests, though, students don’t remember encountering many reporters.

“Even before there was proper coverage of the bare-bones facts of what was going on, there was already conversation about free speech,” says Maya Averbuch, co-editor of the Yale New Journal, a monthly print magazine. “I’m a news consumer, but I suppose I hadn’t quite realized beforehand how quickly the bulk of coverage would end up being opinionated.”

Why did Yale receive more attention than other protesting campuses? “Media elites have an unhealthy obsession with the Ivy League,” Oppenheimer says. There’s a related reason: Who could be more privileged than Yalies? Their school has an endowment nearing $24 billion. New Haven may be a tough city, but a few blocks from the Dollar Tree and Family Dollar are J. Crew and Barbour, nestled next to a world-class school. Stories there of racism-related trauma, critics suggest, must be overstated.

 

“The shrieking girl” became internet shorthand for the student who cursed at Christakis. A Daily Caller article reported her name, her family’s business, the location of their house, and its estimated cost. Facing a barrage of hostility, the student deleted her social media accounts. A Facebook page still exists titled “Don’t hire [Her Name].” Friends say she’s received death threats.

All this for the poster child of speech suppression.

Associate Dean Risë Nelson confirmed that multiple students and faculty members have received death threats online, which the university is investigating.

As an example of liberal touchiness, Friedersdorf cites an Op-ed in the Yale Herald in which the author states, “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.” 

David Rossler defended the piece in a letter from the editor, elaborating to me, “When your job is to be a community leader and somebody says, I’m hurting, you can’t really defend saying, You’re wrong. The correct response to that is to try to understand why, even if you don’t agree.”

After a master, which Yale advertises as a sort of surrogate parent, rushes to debate, that rubs students as more stubborn than supportive. Christakis declined to comment.  

 

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“Blackout” demonstrations, like this one at Yale, took place at colleges across the country on November 12 to show solidarity with Mizzou protesters. (Philipp Arndt Photography)

 

The Op-ed’s author was harassed on Twitter, and one editor appealed to Rossler to remove the piece from the Herald website. Rossler refused, but relented after the author appealed for her piece to be taken down.

Though Rossler never saw the Twitter messages in question, he says, “I assumed they resembled the comments on the back end of the Herald website, some of which used the n-word or suggested that the author kill herself. It seemed likely that the direct messages could be even coarser or more numerous.”  

Most campus dialogue doesn’t occur on campus, of course, but in places like “Overheard at Yale,” a Facebook group that’s restricted to those with a Yale email address. From what I was told, discussions start testy, then get nasty and fade out. Still, many students would rather post their thoughts online than go through a mainstream campus reporter. Accordingly, first-person essays became the method of choice to cover Next Yale protests. Down published “voices from the movement.” The New Journal released a collection of essays on being “Black at Yale.” A feminist magazine, Broad Recognition, published literary reflections on the activism.   

Other forms of campus media, at Yale and elsewhere, have found themselves entangled in racial flare-ups. Reporters visiting Smith College in Massachusetts last month were asked to “articulate their solidarity with black students and students of color” before covering protests. At Wesleyan, about 25 miles north of Yale, a student newspaper was initially defunded by the university after publishing an Op-ed that questioned tactics in the Black Lives Matter movement. Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post wrote that the Wesleyan decision “teaches [students] they might be too fragile to tolerate words that make them uncomfortable; rather than rebut, they should instead shut down, defund, shred, disinvite.”

It’s interesting to hear campus publications such as the Herald and Daily News be referred to as “mainstream media.” Because the YDN is “establishmentarian,” Oppenheimer explains, “it will probably always receive criticism from all areas of the community.”

Sebastian Medina-Tayac is managing editor at the alternative outlet Down. When we first spoke over the phone, he was hardly exhausted. Invigorated, if anything. 

The 21-year-old senior co-founded Down in the spring with Elizabeth Spenst and Eshe Sherley. Down was originally intended for minority women, but Medina-Tayac, whose father is Latino and mother is Native American, was invited because of his journalism experience. He worked as a staff reporter for the YDN last year, and has freelanced for the New Haven Independent, a local daily. Many on Down’s 10-person staff, including Medina-Tayac, are also activists.

“There are people who view themselves as unbiased, objective reporters who aren’t doing a good job,” he says. “One of the things we’ve been going for is that the truth is different from listing facts.” For example, he cites the YDN’s article on a campus rally in March, “Some students call for unity, while others question it.” The piece, which quotes Medina-Tayac as an organizer and representative of the Native American Cultural Council, frames 150 attendees and 10 counter-protesters as equal adversaries.

“I find the YDN to be an extremely hostile environment,” he told me, citing the “elitism and arrogance” of the newsroom and its coverage.

Brea Baker, president of the NAACP campus chapter, argued against racial bias at Yale long before Halloween. The 21-year-old has been a lead organizer of the protest movement and was invited on ABC’s “The View” last month to speak for the demonstrators.  

The show began by discussing the courtyard video. Then, co-host Paula Ferris asked, “We know there have been a series of events. We know you’re a senior. So what have you personally experienced on campus, Brea?”

The student described a scene from sophomore year, when she and a group of friends were on the street and “an older white woman approached us and said, Since when did they start letting so many black kids into this school?

Baker was on a talk show, so it’s understandable to ask about her anecdotal experience with racism. For other students, it can be imposing to be sought as a racial spokesperson. A clichéd classroom example is when a race issue comes up and everyone looks to the minority students for comment.

The same applies to the media. Many Next Yale supporters stopped participating in interviews with the YDN. Adriana Miele, who’s Latina, used her column to try to talk them back into cooperating, but she understands their reluctance. “You have to provide substantial evidence about why you feel the way that you do,” she says, “and that is an exhausting, emotionally turbulent process.”

The day of the Holloway and Christakis standoffs, Greg Lukianoff spoke at a Yale conference on free speech. “Looking at the reaction to Erika Christakis’ email, you would have thought someone wiped out an entire Indian village,” he quipped. A student stood up to object to Lukianoff’s remarks. People accumulated outside to protest, and when the event ended, several attendees were spat on by demonstrators as they left, the YDN reported.   

Adriana Miele and two Native American friends were among those who drifted over to the conference after word spread of the “Indian village” remark. As Miele remembers, “These old alumni came outside and told us that we were proving racism right, and that we were radicals. One man started yelling ‘trigger warning!’ at me.”

The Christakis encounter left equally divided impressions. It began with students writing messages of solidarity in chalk on the ground. A few days later, a Yale junior took a wet mop to some of the messages during the night and was confronted on camera.

“Do you know there are Silliman freshmen who are afraid of sleeping in their own beds?” asks a woman off camera, referring to the residential college under Christakis’ oversight.

“I think that’s completely undocumented,” he replies.

“You’re a white male of privilege, so you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be a woman of color on this campus,” she says.

While continuing to mop, he says, “This is the exact thing that takes away from any sort of dialogue.”

“How are you wiping in the middle of the night … ,” the woman responds before restarting. “How is this dialogue?”

 

Around 400 people attended an evening teach-in two weeks later on “How Yale’s spending policies institutionalize racism and inequality—and what we can do about it.” When Next Yale was mentioned, the auditorium joined in a thunderous slow clap. “This isn’t over!” they cheered. A day earlier, University President Peter Salovey announced significant changes in response to protest demands, including an initiative to expand faculty diversity and race-focused curriculum.

Several labor leaders who spoke received the loudest applause, including Brian Wingate of Local 35, which represents blue-collar Yale employees. “I was a little nervous at first,” Wingate said. “This feels good.”

Another speaker was Next Yale organizer Cathleen Calderon. When I emailed her about the PC concerns raised by national press, she responded, “Thanks for reaching out, but I do not want to talk at all about free speech. I have not engaged with that conversation as I have been organizing around the issues of the historical institutional racism that exists at Yale.”

That sentiment explains why students I interviewed praised The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb for “Race and the Free Speech Diversion,” in which he writes, “The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered.”

What amounts to bullying? In response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ best-seller Between the World and Me, David Brooks of The New York Times wrote a column this summer headlined “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White.” He challenges the book’s “excessive realism,” then asks, “Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?”  

Yes, yes, and yes, says Scott Stern, essentially. Stern, who is white, graduated this spring after four years as a YDN staff columnist and deferred admission to Yale Law School until next fall. He was compelled to submit a guest YDN column last month on “The real speech crisis,” which rejects the PC narrative.

“I think there’s this weird thing going on where people think free speech means either consequence-free speech or freedom from criticism,” he explained to me. “I don’t know where primarily political conservatives got this idea that if they want to say anything, they have the right for no one to get vocally upset.”

Stern called for an “empathy leap,” which he described using a scene from the hit Netflix series “Master of None.” In one episode, Aziz Ansari and some friends are greeted by a guy who only shakes hands with the men at the table. The female friends later cite it as an example of subtle misogyny. Ansari’s character questions whether their interpretation is fair, then realizes it’s his impulse to doubt them that’s prejudiced.

Whether people should embrace that leap or exercise their “standing to respond,” as Brooks suggests, is central to the journalism conflicts at places like Yale. It may be possible, however, to meet somewhere in the middle.

 

On December 9, Dean Holloway announced the results of a university investigation into the SAE party and the free speech conference.

 “SAE created a chaotic environment,” Holloway wrote, and “members at times behaved disrespectfully and aggressively toward students seeking admission.” However, the fraternity was already on probation, and this incident did not violate those terms. He also reported finding no direct accounts of people being spat on at the conference.

Yale has calmed down since Thanksgiving, and protesters intend to push through the new year. Still on their agenda is getting Yale’s Calhoun College, which honors the South Carolina slavery advocate, renamed. That’s a priority of many college activists, including at Princeton, where students staged a 32-hour sit-in to protest Woodrow Wilson’s immortalization around campus.

Universities like Yale are steeped in tradition, and students of color say a history of racism permeates their experience. “We’re the movie critics who have actually watched the movie,” Medina-Tayac explains, defending the necessity of journalism by minority voices. Many students of color involved in campus media see advocacy and journalism at Yale as mutually reinforcing: both aim to fill a knowledge gap. Can that be achieved with an empathy leap? Does a white voice belong in the discussion?

Video clips like the “shrieking girl” scene are jarring, but they hardly tell the whole story. The PC narrative picks out examples of student misconduct to define and dismiss a national campus movement. Much of that analysis is skewed and cynical, which helps explain why many students distrust news media.

Yes, some students are anxious about being interviewed by mainstream press. So are most people. Considering the onslaught of internet harassment that often ensues from speaking on the record, they have good reason to be. Dean Nelson says some students left campus after being overwhelmed by the number of hate messages they received online. Those young people aren’t “coddled” if they’re distressed by relentless racial slurs and messages saying “kill yourself.” With the possibility of such vicious reactions, it’s reasonable to be concerned about being quoted accurately and in context, especially by reporters who lack personal familiarity with their plight. 

Sometimes fear of being a named source in news articles is unfounded. In this case, there’s a Facebook group whose sole purpose is campaigning against one student’s future employment prospects. That type of backlash can’t possibly be evaluated as healthy civil discourse.    

Some cases of political correctness warrant ridicule, but stereotyping a generation and all of its political actions is not good journalism. Skepticism in open dialogue is complemented by open-mindedness, and the same goes for reporting. Before arguing, people of color first want to be heard. Students at Yale generally don’t lack reverence for free speech. They just appreciate that it operates under certain rules. 

After all, in a college seminar, the most unpopular student is the one who’s aggressively argumentative despite blowing off the reading.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Adriana Miele as the only minority staff columnist at the Yale Daily News.

Danny Funt is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt