Palmer, who is known for inviting prominent—and often controversial—figures to Religion 1529, “Personal Choice and Global Transformation” to be questioned by students, said that he invited Dan Mathews, vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, to the class because of Mathews’ novel ideas for animal rights activism.
Following the controversy two weeks ago over H Bomb, a proposed magazine that would feature nude undergraduates and received widespread national coverage, an msnbc.com “gossip” column reported the planned protest last Thursday, focusing on Mathews’ plans to hold a campaign against fur involving nude undergraduates.
Palmer responded by sending an e-mail to his students and the Office of the General Counsel, explaining why Mathews was invited and saying that the students are free to ignore the protest.
Mathews said that after Palmer invited him to the class, he decided to organize a demonstration dubbed “Fur Out: Love In” against the use of fur clothing to take place on March 1, when he is scheduled to appear before the class. Mathews said that he will put a large bed in the Square and invite the public—with or without clothing—to get in bed.
“The point of the protest is skin,” Mathews said. “We have our own and we don’t need the animals’ skin.”
Mathews said he has organized similar demonstrations in Paris and New York.
Palmer’s e-mail noted his displeasure with the gossip column, which he said “appears to be based on an interview with me.” Palmer said that he was never interviewed by msnbc.com, which quoted Palmer as saying that he invited Mathews because “I feel he’s providing a valuable model of engagement for our students.”
Palmer said Friday that he invited Mathews because of his ideas for activism and “his skill in interfacing with two aspects of American society that are very central to our class—increasingly central—the media and the culture of celebrity and stardom.”
Though Palmer said that the protest is officially unrelated to Mathews’ appearance in class, the nude protest has nonetheless added to the controversy that has surrounded Religion 1529 since Palmer first taught it the fall of 2001.
Palmer’s class, which has hosted such well-known figures as former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and MIT professor Noam Chomsky, has been featured in The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor but has also been accused of not providing a balanced view on political issues.
Palmer said that he alerted the Harvard News Office and the Office of the General Counsel to the column’s apparent inaccuracies, but added that he didn’t think the matter would be pursued further.
“I think I may have overreacted,” Palmer said. “I was just surprised to see what looked like an interview with me by someone I had never met or spoken with.”
“Gossip columns are not noted for their attention to factual detail,” he said.
—Staff writer Joshua D. Gottlieb can be reached at email@example.com.