Keeping it Civil

When controversial speakers like Norman G. Finkelstein come to speak, let them.

Free and open campus debate is one of the defining aspects of any academic institution. Besides promoting the right to free speech, an uninhibited debate also ensures that all ideas, however incendiary, can be voiced and judged in a true marketplace of ideas.

Justice for Palestine, a student group at Harvard Law School (HLS), invited controversial DePaul University Professor Norman G. Finkelstein to speak at HLS last Thursday. Finkelstein, who in his latest book Beyond Chutzpah accused Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz of plagiarism in A Case for Israel, was clearly invited with the intention to spark debate. Although contentious, we disagree with HLS’ newspaper, The Record, that Justice for Palestine should have never invited Finkelstein simply because they feel his work violates “a consistent standard of decency and tolerance.” It should be a function of free speech and debate to present all opinions in the open marketplace, thereby enabling people to arrive at the correct understanding of the truth.

To this end, speakers invited to Harvard should be given a chance to present their views without fearing constant disruptions and disrespectful behavior. We strongly condemn the actions of a vocal minority of protestors, many of whom were from Harvard Students for Israel (HSI), at Thursday’s event, who through constant shouting and vocal harassment were clearly aiming to hamper campus discourse. While HSI vouches that this was not a pre-meditated effort to disrupt Finkelstein’s speech, it indeed had the effect of doing so. Those protestors should have remained subdued until the question-and-answer session, at which time tough questions could be posed to the speaker. Furthermore, the protestors should not have used inflammatory rhetoric—such as shouting taunts like “Anti-Semite” in mid-speech—to obscure the real debate.

Many onlookers at the speech repeatedly disrupted the lecture, heckling, shouting rebuttals, and holding florescent posters protesting Finkelstein’s stated views. One disturbance even forced him to stop speaking temporarily. Besides inhibiting free debate, the protestors’ actions also violated HLS’s Protest and Dissent Guidelines. The guidelines explicitly state that, “A dissenter must not substantially interfere with a speaker’s ability to communicate…Chanting or making other sustained or repeated noise in a manner which substantially interferes with the speaker’s communication is not permitted.”

Students have the ability to shape campus debate in many ways—one of which is by inviting high profile and controversial speakers to campus. As long as a speaker is sponsored by a student organization, there should be no question as to whether that figure should be allowed to speak here.

Last spring, when Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Homeland Security recruiters on campus solicited protests, we expressed our belief that while we may not agree with the message of a particular speaker or group, we by no means support efforts to silence their opinions.

It is not the message of Finkelstein’s speech that we are concerned with, but rather that the principle of free and uninhibited debate is defended as paramount to our academic institutions.