Stifled Into Silence
How would Harvard students react to a fellow student who vigorously defended "white pride" in a campus publication, or a student who stepped up to a microphone on Widener's steps to declare that a woman's place is in the home, or that left-handed students are unfit for Harvard? Would some in the Harvard community insist on silencing speech that they considered offensive, racist, sexist or homophobic?
In recent years at least, unpopular views have rarely been expressed by Harvard students. It is worth considering whether this silence is because very few happen to hold these views or because those who do have been made to feel that they are not free to express those views. In The Shadow University, their new book about civil liberties on America's university campuses, Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate examine the effects of campus speech codes--which some universities have adopted in the name of protecting designated groups. They conclude that these policies have had a stifling effect on free expression. As a private institution, Harvard College has greater legal ability to regulate speech and expression than do public universities, but it has resisted adopting strict regulations.
The Handbook for Students notes that "speech not specifically directed against individuals in a harassing way may be protected by traditional safeguards of free speech, even though the comments may cause considerable discomfort or concern to others in the community." This appears to indicate an abstract commitment to free speech despite unpleasant consequences. When it comes to how this policy is applied to concrete cases, however, there seems to be some ambiguity and room for interpretation on the part of College officials.
In the view of Harvard officials, what exactly constitutes expression, which is protected from discipline, and behavior, which may not be protected? At a 1990 Faculty meeting, Dean of the Kennedy School of Government Joseph S. Nye Jr., then chair of a student-faculty committee to develop free speech guidelines, expressed the committee's view that it should be within the authority of Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III, to remove a banner hung from the windows of Holworthy Hall that read, "Some group, get out." Others might argue that such an action should fall under protected free speech.
The Handbook for Students offers no specific governing regulations for such cases. Though a Harvard student's unpopular speech will never incur a disciplinary response, Epps (in an interview) and former Harvard President Derek C. Bok (in a speech) have acknowledged that offensive speech might prompt an informal response on the part of an administrator.
In an interview, Silverglate questioned the chilling effect Harvard administrators' informal involvement in these cases may have, especially for the student who perceives an administrator's persuasion as an implied threat of discipline. Bok's reply to such criticism, articulated in his 1984 "Open Letter to the Harvard Community" on free speech, is that the "possibility [of an inhibitory effect] is not sufficient to outweigh the need for officials to speak out on matters of significance to the community."
Bok seems to suggest that there are certain matters with greater significance than free expression, though it is unclear what these matters might be. Despite these ambiguities, so far it seems that Harvard's speech policies haven't been particularly problematic. The more salient question at Harvard may be how students, not administrators, respond to unpopular speech. Kors and Silverglate describe instances at other schools in which student publications have been stolen from campus distribution centers by students who disagreed with the views expressed in them.
One would certainly presume that the Harvard administration wouldn't tolerate such action, but more importantly, one would hope that Harvard students are committed deeply enough to the principle of free expression on campus so as to not let their strong offense to another's views prompt them to respond in such a fashion.
Bok describes the instinct toward double standards for free speech in statistical terms, pointing to poll results that despite overwhelming support for the notion of free speech, 68 percent of people 25 to 35 years old favored a ban on radio or television statements indicating that "some races of people are better than others." Perhaps some Harvard students also forget their commitment to free speech when speech is used against them.
Silverglate described to me two competing conceptions of university life: the college-as-kindergarten, in which students have the "right" not to be offended or challenged throughout their four years, and the college-as-cauldron, in which challenge is inherent to education. Silverglate himself argues that the "educational process cannot go forward without some offense" and that college is "supposed to be a hostile environment."
Which view of our education do we choose to adopt? Perhaps we avert our eyes from what we disagree with.
How can Harvard be a place more deeply committed to free expression? First, the Faculty should consider clarifying the principle that students professing unpopular views will not be subject to informal persuasion by administrators that may have an inhibiting effect on student expression.
Second, students must develop thick skins for unpopular speech and accept offensive views as a fact of life. Instead of seeking to silence others, those who are made uncomfortable by speech should combat it with speech in return.
To accept the fact of unpopular speech on campus is also to accept the reality of society. As Kors and Silverglate write, "What an astonishing expectation to give to students: the belief that, if they belong to a protected category, they have a right to four years of never being offended."
Bok seems to have put it best in his 1984 letter: "The principles of free speech require the understanding and support of all segments of the university community. Free speech will not survive in an environment in which many people are indifferent to its existence or hostile to the expression of unpopular thoughts." Let's take Bok's words to heart and be neither indifferent nor hostile to free speech on the Harvard campus.
Adam R. Kovacevich '99 is a government concentrator in Quincy House.