Just under three weeks ago, Yale President Peter Salovey delivered his freshman address on free expression. He quoted extensively from the Woodward Report, a document whose language he called “clear and unambiguous” in its defense of free speech, and he made the case for why “unfettered expression is so essential on a university campus.”
Our community now faces an opportunity to put these ideals into practice. The Buckley Program, an undergraduate group on campus, recently invited Ayaan Hirsi Ali to give a lecture this week. An accomplished and courageous woman, Hirsi Ali has an amazing story. She suffered genital mutilation as a child and later fled to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage. These are beyond mere “unfortunate circumstances,” as some organizations have called it. Once in the Netherlands, she worked at a refugee center, became a politician, fought for human dignity and women’s rights and ultimately abandoned her Muslim faith. In her works since then, she has voiced strong opinions against Islam, opinions which have provoked constant threats on her life ever since.
As the president of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program, here is my understanding of the controversy that then unfolded: When news of the upcoming Sept. 15 lecture became public, a student representative of the Muslim Students Association contacted me and asked to meet. During our first conversation, she requested that the Buckley Program disinvite Hirsi Ali. I told her such an option — which she now denies to me and university administrators having presented — was a nonstarter.
I distinctly remember that this student then asked if my group would consider either prohibiting Hirsi Ali from speaking on Islam or inviting another speaker to join — someone who would supposedly be more representative and qualified to discuss the subject. She told me certain national organizations, which I expected to be opposed to Hirsi Ali’s invitation, were interested in her visit to Yale. I took this to mean these organizations might drum up a controversy about Hirsi Ali’s visit. And she expressed support for the Brandeis University administration, which revoked an honorary degree from Hirsi Ali this past spring. This, of course, was precisely one of the incidents of censorship that President Salovey alluded to in his address.
This student, the Muslim Students Association, and a little over thirty other organizations signed an open letter — with its fair share of cherry-picked quotes and mischaracterizations — that was sent yesterday in a school-wide email. But these students fail to understand the purpose of the university and the meaning and necessity of free speech within it.
The idea that free speech extends to only those with whom one agrees is close-minded. The idea that inviting an additional speaker is necessary in order to supposedly advance free speech, but really just to correct our own lecturer’s views, is ridiculous. The idea that a fellow undergraduate organization can dictate to another how to run its own event is shameless. And the idea that only so-called “experts” merit invitations is absurd. (After all, I don’t remember anyone fretting over Al Sharpton’s invitation to speak on the death penalty last week despite his lack of a criminal-law degree.)
These standards and requests are unjust not simply because some students were seeking to unevenly impose them, but more importantly because they are antithetical to the pursuit of knowledge that defines a university like Yale. Such a pursuit requires a robust protection of the right to freely express one’s views, however controversial.
One need not agree with everything Ayaan Hirsi Ali says to agree that her voice makes a valuable contribution to advancing the open exchange of ideas on this campus. In his address, President Salovey declared, “We should not offend merely to offend. We should not provoke without careful forethought.” If one actually examines Hirsi Ali’s work, one sees that she does present well-reasoned arguments, even if disagreeable, and that she doesn’t provoke merely to provoke, which should be evident by the many death threats she has received throughout the years.
Her work does not qualify as “libel and slander,” as was suggested by the open letter, and it cannot be reduced to purported “hate speech,” a slur used simply to silence speech with which one disagrees. A sincere observer will readily find that Hirsi Ali is far from the inflammatory demagogue the MSA portrays her as. Instead, that observer will find that she is a brave woman deeply committed to fighting for the respect and dignity of millions of oppressed women around the world.
The MSA’s insistence throughout the past week that we cancel or change the format of our event strays far from the ideals of free expression so eloquently defended by President Salovey and so essential to our university. If the MSA or another student organization would like to invite another guest of their own, the Buckley Program will not stop them. But we hope that if anyone from the Yale community attempts to disrupt our event, the administration will stand behind its stated commitment that students be allowed, and indeed encouraged, “to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable and challenge the unchallengeable.”
Rich Lizardo, formerly an American Spectator intern, is a senior at Yale and the president of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program. Copyright 2014 Yale Daily News Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.