Libby Snowden ’24: Yale Students Want Free Speech. Yale Leadership Isn’t So Clear

December 21, 2023

By Libby Snowden ’24

It’s easy to look at the mainstream media and think that Yale is a cesspool of intellectual orthodoxy. Yes, 80% of Yale students identify as liberal. However, the Buckley Institute’s new survey of Yale undergraduates shows that students are hungry for a campus diverse in ideology; where controversial speakers can prompt important conversations on challenging subjects; and where students can debate and discuss ideas to their fullest potential—which is, in fact, the whole point of a university.

Yale has speech-protective policies that empower students to engage with one another meaningfully. The problem is that Yale hasn’t done nearly enough to educate students on them.

Historically, Yale was the gold standard for the promise of free expression. The Woodward Report, coming up on its 50thanniversary, was drafted after a series of campus disruptions related to controversial speakers in 1974. The Woodward Report famously outlines that “unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable” are essential to the pursuit of truth upon which the university embarks.

What’s shocking, though, is that despite Yale’s admirable policy for protecting free expression, most students know nothing about it. 79% of students surveyed had little (24%) to no (55%) familiarity with the Woodward Report.

Further, Yale has done little to familiarize students with the importance of the Woodward Report or the value of free expression in the academy more broadly. 53% of students said they haven’t heard leadership talk about the importance of free expression often. 18% say they haven’t heard leadership discuss its importance at all.

Students are educated on mental and sexual health, plagiarism, and harassment—all important topics about which everyone should have the same level of understanding—in their first week on campus. It is not assumed that everyone has the same level of knowledge on these topics coming into Yale. Why should free expression be treated any differently? Students come to Yale from all different walks of life—we are a truly diverse campus. No one can be expected to have the same understanding of the most important topics that influence university life. Free speech, the one that influences the way we all interact from day to day, happens to be one on which the university fails to educate us.

Luckily, the Buckley Institute helps fill in the gaps. Last year, we distributed copies of the Woodward Report to first-year students. We have 733 student fellows, indicating that over 10% of the student body seeks alternative thought not typically found in the classroom. These students are actively committed to open discourse, attending lectures and seminars where they will be challenged by those who think differently.

The truth is that Yale students want their university to step up.

One survey participant said:

“Great development [has] been made with regards to free speech on Yale’s campus, mostly by student groups and outside organizations such as the Buckley Institute. However, for serious developments to be made, the Yale administration needs to step up their involvement in protecting free speech and promoting free speech values amongst its students through educational programs and pertinent debates.”

Another commented:

“I think the political views across Yale itself could do a better job of representing the real world since we all ought to be able to defend our viewpoints in the face of criticism, rather than shutting out anybody who could potentially criticize us (which has happened on some occasions, and hasn’t happened on others).”

Students want Yale’s leadership to actively promote the values of free speech and intellectual diversity. As university leadership looks for a new president, they should know that 65% of students want a pro-free speech president. In hiring new faculty, they should keep in mind that 56% of students value political diversity in faculty.

One student hit the nail on the head:

“I think that part of Yale’s magic is putting a bunch of truly amazing scholars with vastly differing viewpoints in the same room and letting us search for deeper truths that lie somewhere in their intersection.”

Those discussions are so much richer when Yale fosters diversity of all kinds in its faculty, staff, and student body.

There is still hope for light and truth at Yale. Students are seeking it. We’re just looking for our university to lead.

Libby Snowden ’24 is a senior at Yale and served as the Buckley Institute’s student vice president in 2023.