Yale bans a website, and violates its own free speech policies

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We all know how the totalitarian government of China censors websites by blocking access to their IP addresses. But it’s shocking to learn that the administration of Yale University is now utilizing this same tactic to ban access to a website they dislike.

A group of Yale students created a website they called Yale Bluebook + (now changed to CourseTable after complaints from Yale administrators about the use of its name), which took the data Yale provided about course evaluations and made it more user-friendly. That is, they made it easier to search the data and sort it to help students identify the highest-ranked courses. Yale officials objected to having its students be more informed, and went after the website. Even though the website’s creators agreed to make many changes in response to Yale’s complaints, Yale has now banned access to the website from its campus.

This is not just an attack on freedom of speech; it’s also a direct violation of Yale’s own policies. According to Yale’s policy on information technology, “Users of IT Systems may exercise rights of free inquiry and expression consistent with the principles of the 1975 Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale.”

The famous 1975 Report is admirably clear about the need to prevent censorship of free speech. According to the report, “a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that the university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom.” The Report noted, “The banning or obstruction of lawful speech can never be justified on such grounds as that the speech or the speaker is deemed irresponsible, offensive, unscholarly, or untrue.”

The 1975 Report declares that it is “the duty of all members of the University community to defend the right to speak and refrain from disruptive interference.” A block on a website certainly qualifies as “disruptive interference.”

Yale’s copyright claims against CourseTable are fairly weak. Yale has no financial interest in selling this course data to students and suffers no financial harm, which is an important component of fair use doctrine. But the fact that Yale has made unproven claims of violation of copyright law has no bearing on the issue of censoring access to a website.

Although the 1975 Report did not address copyright law, it did address a comparable issue of civil liability: “While untruthful and defamatory speech may give rise to civil liability it is neither a justification nor an excuse for disruption…” So Yale’s policies are quite clear: even when a website allegedly violates civil law, such as copyright, no censorship of access is permitted.

A true university never blocks a website merely because it disapproves of the content. The fact that Yale is engaging in censorship to prevent students from knowing more about the courses they want to take only makes this repression more disturbing. The spirit of the 1975 Report would compel Yale to encourage this innovative use of information by its students and revoke its misguided attempt to use copyright law for suppression of free speech. But the letter of the 1975 Report certainly prohibits Yale from blocking a website it doesn’t like.

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