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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Trigger or treat: Campus censorship

Yale University students and faculty rally to demand

Yale University students and faculty rally to demand that Yale University become more inclusive to all students on Cross Campus in New Haven on Nov. 9, 2015. Credit: Arnold Gold/New Haven Register via AP

The recent debates over free speech and "safe spaces" in the academy may have reached a watershed with last week's debacle at Yale University, where a group of students had a meltdown over an email defending culturally "insensitive" Halloween costumes. Several video clips of a confrontation in which protesters mobbed a beleaguered administrator went viral on the Internet -- serving, one hopes, as a wake-up call for the nation.

The controversy at Yale began when a dean sent out a pre-Halloween letter asking students to be mindful of offensive stereotypes and "cultural appropriation" in their costumes, and cited not only blackface but also war paint and turbans as things to avoid. Erika Christakis, associate master of Yale's Silliman College, responded with an email questioning the climate of "censure and prohibition" and defending young people's right to be "transgressive." She suggested that anyone offended by a costume could either choose not to look or engage the wearer in dialogue.

That, in turn, offended a lot of folks at Yale. More than 700 people signed an angry letter. On Thursday, Silliman College Master Nicholas Christakis -- Erika Christakis' husband -- was accosted by about 100 protesters who demanded an apology. The professor was berated, cursed at, and shouted down. When he tried to explain that it was part of his job to create an intellectual space at the college, one protester shrieked, "It is not about creating an intellectual space! . . . It's about creating a home here!"

On Friday, the Yale Daily Herald ran a column by a Silliman student asserting that some of her friends were losing sleep and skipping classes and meals because of their distress over Christakis' email. (The piece was taken offline after the editors apparently realized how embarrassing it looked to outsiders.) The student felt that the master's attempt to promote debate only made the situation worse. "I don't want to debate," she wrote. "I want to talk about my pain."

To some extent, the incident at Yale reflects a trend of growing tensions on college campuses. The president of the University of Missouri, Tim Wolfe, has just stepped down due to intense protests after he was accused of insensitivity to concerns about race.

The Missouri protesters' demands included a strong dose of ideological diktat, such as a mandatory "racial awareness" curriculum for students, faculty and staff. But at least in that case, the protests were in response to racial incidents on campus: a swastika drawn in a bathroom, a rehearsal by black performers being interrupted by a white student shouting racial slurs, allegations of excessive force by campus police toward demonstrators.

But the outcry at Yale is entirely over unpopular speech. The crimes imputed to Nicholas and Erika Christakis include tweeting links to an Atlantic magazine article, "The Coddling of the American Mind" -- which criticized demands for dissent-free "safe spaces" on campuses -- and to an article about President Barack Obama's criticism of intolerant students.

Clearly, the aggrieved Yalies have no sense of irony.

In Twitter discussions, left-of-center commentators such as New York magazine's Jesse Singal and The New Republic's Jeet Heer have suggested that those appalled by the Yale protesters are themselves overreacting hysterically: a few students being childish hardly pose a threat to the Republic.

But the problem is that such tantrums are not being rebuked. A substantial proportion of students at our best universities thinks that "I don't want to debate, I want to talk about my pain" is a respectable position, and that they can bully those who reject it. If that's not a threat to our freedom, what is?

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.