Yale’s Censorship of Student Reviews Rings Hollow Before Falling to Student Innovation

In a series of moves unbecoming of an institution of higher learning, Yale this month effectively shuttered a student-designed website that allowed students to consider course evaluations when selecting their courses.

A Yale student named Sean Haufler (more on him below) writes:

In January 2012, two Yale students named Harry Yu and Peter Xu built a replacement to Yale’s official course selection website. They it called YBB+ (Yale Bluebook Plus), a “plus” version of the Yale-owned site, called Yale Bluebook. YBB+ offered different functionality from the official site, allowing students to sort courses by average rating and workload. The official Yale Bluebook, rather, showed a visual graph of the distribution of student ratings as well as a list of written student reviews. YBB+ offered a more lightweight user interface and facilitated easier comparison of course statistics. Students loved it. A significant portion of the student body started using it.

After two years, Yale decided it no longer liked the innovative website and abruptly blocked access to it during course registration.  Students were instead greeted with this screen:

yale_blocked

Yale predictably justified the blockade by iterating through the usual “this isn’t about speech!” categories.  The administration complained that the site used the terms “Yale” and “Bluebook,” an apparent reference to potential trademark infringement.  The developers changed the name to CourseTable and dropped “Yale,” but Yale asserted copyright ownership over the data used (presumably including student-written evaluations).  Finally, Yale raised the specter of the Acceptable Use Policy: if information is read from Yale’s computers, it must be able to prevent access to those computers where the resulting presentation of information is uncomfortable.  Replace “computers” with “books” in that sentence to better evaluate Yale’s position.

But where Yale asserted that it was simply protecting its intellectual property, its administrators referenced “the prominence of class and professor ratings [and] the application’s accessibility to non-undergraduates” — that is, the content and its audience.  The motivation of Yale’s acts appears to be the site’s aggregation of student reviews and ratings as opposed to the reviews Yale wants to highlight:

Later that weekend, Yale’s administration told the student developers that the school didn’t approve of the use of its course evaluation data, saying that their website “let students see the averaged evaluations far too easily”. Harry and Peter were told to remove the feature from the CourseTable website or else they would be referred to the school’s punishment committee.

Quoth the Dean:

“Those evaluations, whose primary purpose is to inform instructors how to improve their teaching, became available to students only in recent years and with the understanding that the information they made available to students would appear only as it currently appears on Yale’s sites — in its entirety.”

Note the contradiction: the reviews are “primarily” to assist professors in fine-tuning their courses, but are made available to students as a means of selecting their courses.  It’s apparently fine to block student websites averaging or highlighting particular reviews because it’s done automatically.  Question whether it would be appropriate were Yale to censor a student site which assembled these reviews and data by hand.  And consider Yale’s motivation: an undergraduate student with access to evaluations of courses might not take courses in an underperforming department, or might not continue their education at Yale if a postgraduate school’s ratings gave them pause. 

The provision of Yale’s Acceptable Use Policy applicable here is uncertain.  A brief survey of the policy does not reveal any particular violation, excepting the preliminary statement that the policy itself is intended “to ensure that IT Systems are used for their intended purposes.”  Any reading of the policy which forecloses the students’ project would necessarily turn on restricting access to the underlying data on the basis that Yale doesn’t like what the students are doing with it after accessing it.  This is a concern about the content of the students’ speech, not whether the methods are intrusive or taxing on Yale’s IT resources.

As a private institution unbound by the First Amendment, Yale is free to impose draconian speech codes or to regulate traffic on its network by whatever standards it deigns.  But before doing so, it should re-evaluate its public commitments to free expression, notably this one:

Above all, every member of the university has an obligation to permit free expression in the university. No member has a right to prevent such expression. Every official of the university, moreover, has a special obligation to foster free expression and to ensure that it is not obstructed.

The creators of Bluebook Plus warned:

“If Yale had chosen to work with us after the start of the semester instead of shutting the site down immediately, none of this would have happened. Faced with aging IT systems and slow-moving IT departments, students will take the charge to make their own lives easier.

Their prescient observation didn’t take long to come to fruition.  Sean Haufler, a computer science student at Yale, developed a workaround.  Rather than relying on a website to aggregate information, he created an extension for the Chrome browser which enhances the data on the original, Yale-owned Bluebook. In other words, rather than posting the data onto a blockable website, Haufler’s tool — which he christened “Banned Bluebook” — allows students to breach Yale’s copyright and acceptable use policy on their own.

Haufler knows that he skirts Yale’s authority in his innovative workaround.  His blog post begins: “I hope I don’t get kicked out of Yale for this.”  His is an act of rebellion, a protest of a censorious administration.  In taking it, he exposes the futility of frustrating students’ innovation and demonstrates the ingenuity — and integrity — of Yale’s student body.