Censure, Don't Censor

NYE FREE SPEECH REPORT:

AUNIVERSITY should devote itself to the ideals of free speech at all times, because academic inquiry and community discussion need to progress unfettered by bureaucratic constraint or other artificial limits.

That's why the "free speech guidelines" which the Faculty will consider this week should concern us all.

In response to a series of incidents in which controversial speeches had to be cancelled because of unruly protests, the University charged a committee led by Professor of Government Joseph S. Nye, Jr., with developing a way to balance the right of demonstrators to peacefully protest with the right of an unpopular speaker to be heard--"to inform students of the acceptable limits of protest," reads the committee's report.

The report meets that goal admirably, with a reasonable and consistent set of rules for preserving the rights to speak out, hear and dissent. The report also guarantees the sanctity of classroom discussion.

But in the shadows and corners of the guidelines lurk potential threats to free speech. We find fault with two sections of the report, sections that may open the door to unwarranted restrictions on freedom of expression.

THE first is an unnecessary and entirely senseless restriction on the ability of the campus press to report on campus events. "Press may be invited or excluded whether the meeting is open or closed," reads the report. This passage appears to say that members of the University community holding public meetings on Harvard property may, if they choose, prevent members of the press from covering a potentially controversial event.

We urge the Faculty to reject any provision that could be used to stifle the undergraduate press. If it does not, The Crimson will be forced to defy the regulation in order to accurately report the news.

Another problem with the report is that it calls for the creation of a student-faculty "Advisory Committee on Free Speech" without specifying the composition or clearly defining the mandate and powers of such a body. The Faculty should make perfectly clear that student representatives should have parity with faculty members on the committee. The Faculty should also insist that the committee exist only in an advisory capacity, with no authority to arbitrate what forms of expression are acceptable or unacceptable.

THE recent trend throughout the U.S. toward restricting offensive speech on campuses is disturbing. Although racist, sexist and homophobic speech should be abhorrent to all, attempting to prohibit them is not an adequate solution.

In the U.S. in general, and in the University in particular, we should carefully guard the distinction between that which we censure, or morally condemn, and that which we censor, or prohibit. Offensive speech deserves moral condemnation and vigorous rebuttal from the University community. Indeed, any liberal community has a responsiblity to condemn and rebut offensive speech. Standards of acceptability must exist, but they need not and should not be set by the University administration. What is important is not that purveyors of offensive speech be disciplined, but that they be loudly and publicly condemned by the community.

When we admit the right to silence by force any views--however odious--we admit that might makes right. Restricting speech because it is intolerant stoops to the level of intolerance. Although the private harassment of individuals should not be tolerated, no constitutionally protected form of public speech should be arbitrarily forbidden by the University.

The sheer impossibility of establishing positive criteria to distinguish "worth less speech" from "speech with redeeming value" should preclude the establishment of any body empowered to make such distinctions.

Adjudicating the merits of various types of speech places the University community on a slippery slope. Hastily attempting to regulate offensive speech is simply unacceptable to a community whose raison d'etre is the free exchange of ideas.

We hope any advisory committee on free speech will meet its stated goal--"continuing a moral discourse that is vital to our existence"--without overstepping these bounds.