All Is Fair In Poster Wars
After a long slumber, it appears that the Harvard campus is waking up from its apathy. The Yard is alive with the sound of vigorous debate, which should be music to the ears of those who want their college to be a vibrant intellectual environment in which students are not afraid to disagree with one another.
Last week, the Association Against Learning in the Absence of Religion and Morality (AALARM) put up posters calling into question the morality and wisdom of the homosexual lifestyle. Their posters are clear, concise and almost blunt. But they are by no means devoid of content, as AALARM's critics claim.
Take their most controversial poster, bearing the now notorious slogan of "AIDS: Sodomy=Death." This poster makes a valid point, namely, that actions which some may find pleasurable in the short term may cost them dearly in the long term.
In a day and age when moral and religious arguments have unfortunately fallen by the wayside, this argument is an important one to make. For people who refuse to accept the immorality of homosexuality, a utilitarian argument that addresses the possible consequences of homosexual acts may have more persuasive power. Just because a valid argument is presented in a controversial or arguably sensationalist manner does not take away its legitimacy.
In response to the AALARM campaign, Joshua D. Oppenheimer '96-'97, political chair of the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Students Association (BGLSA), launched a counter-campaign. The BGLSA put up vaguely threatening posters that read "AALARM: Hatred=Death." Oppenheimer, in an act of generosity, also xeroxed 200 copies of the original AALARM poster to put up next to the BGLSA posters.
I am no great friend of the BGLSA. But I must commend BGLSA members for recognizing that the best way to fight free speech is with more free speech. While I am uncomfortable with Oppenheimer putting up 200 posters from another organization, I have to admit that his approach is far more constructive (and mature) than the usual response to AALARM posters--ripping them down.
Such an approach is infinitely better than the course of action advocated by more liberal members of this campus. There have been several calls for subjecting AALARM members to disciplinary action for violating the codes that govern postering on kiosks.
The arguments about freedom of expression and selective enforcement of the laws are familiar to us all and do not bear repeating here. But there are other reasons for not prosecuting the members of AALARM if they did indeed violate postering guidelines.
Disciplining members of AALARM for violating poster guidelines would send a dangerous message to other groups with unpopular messages: if your ideas are controversial, you must be careful about sharing them with others. Harvard views itself as an institution in pursuit of truth. In moving towards the truth, we will have to deal with all kinds of arguments, be they good, bad or indifferent. The last thing we need here is a "chilling effect" that discourages people with unpopular views from speaking out. We should not stifle campus discourse just when it appears that Harvard is becoming politically energized again.
I recognize the necessity of regulating the distribution of printed matter on the Harvard campus. I also believe that rules against the tearing down of approved posters should be enforced, strictly. After all, the right to free expression does not include the right to interfere with the expression of others.
But I would urge the University to be relatively lax in disciplining groups or individuals who put up posters illegally, regardless of whether the party is liberal, conservative or simply interested in selling futon. Illegal postering does make for more crowded kiosks. But in a university setting, one in which we want to maximize the amount of intellectual discussion and political debate, it is better to risk having too much free expression than too little.
David B. Lat's column appears on alternate Tuesdays.