FREE SPEECH In the lexicon of American political jargon, perhaps no two words are as revered. Certainly more are as immune from harm, those who succeed in choking their unpopular stands in the mantle of free speech invevitably appear heroic dissidents, defined by their willingness to challenge the accepted and tempt the wrath of contemptuous majorities.
So it's not surprising that embattled groups on this campus invoke "free speech" almost by reflex. When the scheduled panel appearance of a Palestine Liberation Organization members at a Law School conference came under fire two weeks ago, one professor, defending the invitation, argued. "The PLO like the Nazi Party, has an absolute right to speak."
And when another professor drew harsh criticism from Gay Students Association members late last week, he too, responded by implicitly citing his right of free speech. "I just want to let people know that there are many who share my opinion," explained Edward L. Pattullo, director of the Center for Behavioral Sciences.
Pattullo had angered the GSA by suggesting, in a letter to the Harvard independent, that no long as the causes of homosexuality remain unknown, "if [being gay] is environmentally determined, it is reasonable for the majority to want to shape society to discourage it. In the absence of such knowledge, common sense suggests that negative social pressures may keep some who have a choice from adopting a homosexual life. We would think that a good thing. "Earlier, the letter had stated that the University nonetheless had an obligation not to harass those who were already gay.
In both instances, opponents responded by trying to curtail the comments they so detested. The chairman of the Harvard Jewish Law Students Association (HJLSA). Denine J. Karlam '80, chastised the Law School for partially funding the conference at which Deena Abu-Loghod, information coordinator for the PLO mission at the U.N., would speak. The reason, according to Karlan: the school's decision to fund the program "implicitly supports the PLO," because Abu-Loghod "has a reputation for hooking into these types of conferences and using them as a forum for PLO views against Israel."
The challenge to Pattullo's ability to speak out was less direct, but threatened an equality chiling effect. Upset by Pattullo's stance which is termed "fuel for anti-gay violence and hatred," the GSA announced that it would circulate a petition condemning the letter and ask Henry Rosovsky, dean of the Faculty, to conduct an investigation into the policy and practices of the Center for Behavioral Sciences. The reason for the investigation, according to GSA officials: Because Pattullo included his title as director of the center at the end of his controversial letter, he had cast doubt upon the practices of the center. He, in turn, contended that because his letter had explicitly disavowed any "expert knowledge about the phenomenon of homosexuality," he was clearly speaking as a layman.
Strictly speaking, the right to free speech is not at issue in either controversy That privilege has traditionally been protected against government intrusion: at does not entitle one to speak at a panel or have a letter-to-the-editor appear in print--decisions made by private institutions.
IN A MORE important sense, however, supporters of the PLO appearance and of Pattullo's decision to speak out are right to encourage the expression of unpopular views within the University community. If the formal right to free speech is not at stake, the practical, utilitarian rationale for unimpeded expression certainly is in suggesting that the Law School should not have invited Abu-Loghod to the conference, the HJLSA was effectively trying to close the door to alternative views--seeking to exclude the PLO because it found that group's activities objectionable. The GSA, too, sought to corner the market of ideas--in this case on homosexuality. In pushing for an investigation of the center Pattullo heads in response to his airing of views they deplored, the GSA threatened to chill the speech of their opponents. Who wouldn't think twice about speaking out if declaring one's views meant laying one's academic work and professional affiliates open to allegation of him?
What both Abu-Loghod and Pattullo's opponents full to realize is that nothing can be move dangerous to a University community than the exclusion of competing views. Except an educational issues, universities need not--and probably should not--have political ideologies, like support or oppositions to the PLO. They should, however, safeguard one set of values--that of pluralism, discourse and toleration. The gestures of the HJLSA and the GSA in trying to silence their critics, would undermine those values.
On their campus, probably a vast majority of students oppose the PLO. And if this year's GSA quiescence suggests anything, it is that much of this campus now supports its gay members drive for equality and toleration. The divergent views of a lone individual will not harm either came. Support for Israel's quest for peaceful existence without the PLO and gay students quest for normal lives without governments that discourage their lifestyles, are, in my view, correct. But the popularity of one view is no reason to silence competing ideas--only to seek to rebut them.
The HJLSA eventually settled on the proper approach, once it became clear that the Law School wasn't going to rescind its invitation to Abu-Loghod. Some 150 people protested outside the building an which she spoke, some loudly criticizing the PLO's tacties not Abu-Loghod's right to speak. That shows of strength probably did more to bolster the students position than excluding the rival speaker.
By the same token, the GSA could have simply circulated is petition criticizing Pattullo's suggestion and called for Rosovsky to reitcrate that Harvard has no intention of following his advice. That step would not discourage Pattullo and fellow faculty members from speaking their minds, at the same time, it would have shown Pattullo and others with administrative responsibilities that their personal views towards putting social pressure on homosexuals should not in any way affect their University duties. An investigation of the practices of the Center for Behavioral Sciences should hinge not on the statements of a single administrator, but on some indication that the center has discriminated.
The many of the PLO and Pattullo controversies, then, seems stark. Few groups have tried harder to impress upon others the need for the tolerance than Jews or homosexuals, both groups, with long his tones of discrimination, have made impressive strides, certainly on this campus. In seeking to secure their states, both groups recently sought either directly as in the PLO instance, or indirectly, as in the GSA case--to silence their critics. Neither, it seems, has learned a fundamental lesson that groups who preach tolerance cannot be in-tolerant towards opposing views without inviting a dangerous--and intolerant backlash.