Skip to Main Content

On Free Expression and Safety

December 10, 2023
by Mark David Siegel

Hi everyone,

As a program director, one of my core responsibilities is to provide residents with safe learning environment.* Hostile climates undermine education and patient care.

I’m proud of our climate. Our residents are “as good as any, nicer than most;” and so are most people at Yale. We can speak openly and welcome opposing views. We choose our words thoughtfully and uphold patience, tolerance, and kindness. That’s how we thrive.

It’s painful to see the contrast on many university campuses, particularly since October 7, where some leaders seem unable to balance two core principles: the right to speak freely and the right to live safely. To achieve peace in Israel and Gaza, we need more people to listen to the grievances of the other side and to welcome challenges to long-held beliefs. But it should be self-evident that calls for genocide—and language that dehumanizes, threatens, or harasses—have no place in a learning community.

Hate speech isn’t just abhorrent; it’s dangerous. In the 1930s, the Nazis set the stage for the Holocaust by calling Jews vermin. Many of us recognize this history all too well when we hear calls for violence against any group, not just Jews.

I am grateful that Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, addressed this issue last week in his message to the university community:

Let me be clear in stating our forceful rejection of discrimination and prejudice at Yale. In my opinion, if an individual stood on our campus and urged the committing of mass murder of Jews, it would have no intellectual or academic value, and is frankly hateful and worthless. The very idea of it is something I find outrageous, vile, and abhorrent. Such an act, in my view, would be harassing, intimidating, and discriminatory, so I would certainly expect that person to be held accountable under our policies prohibiting such conduct.

I recognize the risks associated with limiting speech, particularly the concern that essential voices will be silenced, especially those of marginalized groups. I also recognize that limiting speech can silence those holding unpopular views. Healthy democracies must protect the right of individuals to speak openly, without fear of retaliation.

I will leave it to constitutional scholars to decide what kind of speech the First Amendment protects, but when it comes to places of learning, I am certain that free speech rights do not extend to bullying, harassment, and calls for violence. Hate speech is dangerous and undermines our educational mission.

Identifying the limits of acceptable speech demands consistency and judgment. Sadly, recent history is rife with examples of hypocrisy and poor judgment, from social media platforms spreading conspiracy theories to censorious decisions to cancel lectures and withdraw job offers from those expressing controversial views. But such examples don’t negate our responsibility to create communities that uphold both free expression and safety.

Thankfully, our residency upholds this responsibility. We understand that effective learning, discovery, and patient care can only happen when we honor both open dialog and basic decency- not one or the other but both.

May your commitment to safe, free expression continue to shine brightly, like holiday candles illuminating these dark days.

Have a good Sunday, everyone. I’ll be drinking coffee and reading personal statements for Tuesday’s interviews.


* From the ACGME Program Requirements for Graduate Medical Education in Internal Medicine: “Programs, in partnership with their Sponsoring Institutions, must provide a professional, equitable, respectful, and civil environment that is psychologically safe and that is free from discrimination, sexual and other forms of harassment, mistreatment, abuse, or coercion of students, residents, faculty, and staff.”

Submitted by Mark David Siegel on December 10, 2023