The University of Missouri and Yale University have garnered widespread attention in the last two weeks, and often in the same breath. But despite what their proximity in headlines may suggest, the events at each university have caught the public eye for different reasons. What they do have in common is that the coverage of and response to images reveal insight about the selective valuation of different voices. Ultimately, they beg the question of whether one can accept freedom of speech as the cornerstone of all other liberties, while also recognizing that not all speech is received similarly or has the same potential to do political work.
University of Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike on Nov. 2, demanding the removal of university president Tim Wolfe for his failure to address grievances about race relations on campus. But it wasn’t until the football team got involved five days later that the protests received serious national coverage. On Nov. 8, the coaching staff of the football team released a statement of solidarity with the boycotting players; the following morning, Wolfe offered his resignation.
Rewind to Oct. 28 — the setting is now Yale University. The Intercultural Affairs Committee sent out an email advising students to be wary of the implications of costumes that stereotype a certain race or religion and how that reflects on them as individuals in a larger community. In response, Erika Christakis, who serves as associate master of a Yale residential college, sent out an email to the residents of Silliman residential college questioning, “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?” Students expressed their disagreement in a series of protests the following weeks.
Despite their vastly different contexts, “Yale and Mizzou” have been lumped together in headlines for articles regarding freedom of speech. In a piece published by The New Yorker on Nov. 14, protesters at the University of Missouri are cited as violating the First Amendment rights of a student journalist by refusing to let him take pictures. Thus, freedom of the press is wrongly construed as the right of photographers to operate within any space against anyone else’s wishes, rendering legal image release forms obsolete and reading more like a defense of paparazzi photographers.
Similarly, the email sent by the Intercultural Affairs Committee Council at Yale is described as a controlling imposition of censorship. The email, however, threatens exactly zero potential repercussions or consequences for anyone wearing an insensitive costume and is no more controlling than a mother suggesting that her child grab a jacket before going out because it’s cold outside. Using the same logic, Christakis’s email could be said to be equally policing of student behavior. She writes, “Nicholas [her husband and head of Silliman] says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended.” This also suggests that students should express themselves without any threat of consequence.
Oddly specific aspects of the situations at Yale and Mizzou are drawn out to paint them as flagrant assaults on freedom of speech. This is an easy trap to fall into when covering such stories, because, first, there already exists a prefabricated paradigm into which the events and names need only to be copied and pasted and, second, concluding by clinging to the absolutism of freedom of speech leaves the writer on a nearly unanimously-accepted moral high ground. This allows journalists, as well as bystanders, to eschew the dirty work of actually delving into the complexity of these issues.
What Yale and Mizzou do share is efficacy for student organizations dedicated to the concerns of students of color. Articles about these events have systematically and ironically invoked the principle of free speech to police student expression. It brings to mind the way peaceful protest was employed during the Baltimore riots in an attempt to police the way people responded to horrifying patterns of injustice and brutality. Requiring people to sound respectful assumes that those who listen will also be respectful, but such an ideology fails to realize that those who are oppressed often meet antagonism.
To invoke free speech when speaking of Yale and Mizzou in order to lump the two together is a statement made on arguably shaky ground to begin with, but because it fits into a ready-made dialogue, it excuses onlookers from the responsibility of contextualization and critical thought. Rather than treating issues of campus debate with an ignorance of respectability politics and institutional power, journalists covering university protests, especially those led by students of color, should be aware of how their own critique plays into this struggle of voices.
Kristen Woodruff is a senior majoring in classics. Her column, “Old School, New Tricks,” runs every other Wednesday.