Disciplining Dissent

The College shouldn't fear violence from protesting students

Last Saturday night, Edward E. Keenan ’06 was outraged. As partygoers primped and pregamed for an evening of officially-sanctioned debauchery in Winthrop House, Keenan was making some last-minute preparations of his own. Using some poster board and markers bought in a last-minute trip to CVS, he made a sign that read “’Debauchery’ Doesn’t Belong on Our Campus / Dems for Common Values.” He then positioned himself across the street from the entrance to the Winthrop House Committee (HoCo)-sponsored party “Debauchery,” proudly holding the sign aloft.

Within minutes, this one-man demonstration was shut down by the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD), which sent Keenan packing on the grounds that he didn’t have a permit for the protest. A permit, the officers explained, was required so that Harvard administrators can provide for security at on-campus demonstrations, per university policy.

Keenan’s crusade wasn’t the only—or even the highest profile—contentious free speech case on campus in the past week. Far more visibly, the Harvard Salient’s decision to publish the infamous Muhammad cartoons provoked outrage on this campus and beyond, and concerned an issue far more controversial than what party students should attend on a Saturday night.

In this case, the administration supported the Salient’s right to free expression, with Associate Dean of the College Judith H. Kidd citing the “right of free press” in an interview with the Crimson. In a move that provoked outrage among members of Harvard’s Muslim community, however, Kidd emailed Salient Editor Travis R. Kavulla ’06-’07, warning him that “segments of the campus and surrounding communities” might turn to violence in response to the cartoons.

In both cases, the administration’s chief concern was not political correctness or the avoidance of controversy, but simply the safety of its students. This concern is necessary and appreciated, but perhaps excessively paternalistic. Couldn’t Keenan judge on his own whether he was putting himself in unnecessary danger by peacefully making known his objections to Debauchery?

Further, both episodes reflect a troubling fear on the part of the administration that Harvard students are prone to violence when confronted with opinions with which they disagree. If nothing else, this recent Salient incident has shown such fears to be baseless: the most visible response to the publication of the cartoons has been a civil discussion organized by the Harvard Interfaith Council and the Harvard Political Union, and co-sponsored by various campus religious and political organizations.

In fairness, the administration no doubt simply seeks to cover all its bases; it gets sued for the one protest that turns violent, not for the hundred that do not. But such a defense, taken to its logical conclusion, could easily justify an outright ban on all public expression. Further, the administration admirably stood by the Salient’s rights to free expression while other schools were not as supportive (at the University of Illinois, two student editors were reprimanded by the University chancellor, who wrote a letter criticizing the newspaper for publishing the cartoons).

Still, must balancing free speech and student safety preclude just one student from standing quietly on a street corner without prior permission? Large rallies, planned days or weeks in advance, involve significant numbers of people and a significant amount of noise, and sensibly need a permit to go forward. But a restriction so sweeping that it prevents individual students from expressing themselves without first asking permission is not only excessive, but contrary to the university’s goals of encouraging free debate and producing students ready to cope with the real world.

No one questions Harvard’s legal rights, as a private institution, to regulate what happens on its property; this university is not subject to the First Amendment in the way that a city government or a state school is. Even so, the question for the university should not be what it can get away with as a legal entity, but what it should do as an educational institution.

The world Harvard graduates will enter is a complex one, one whose rough edges have not been sanded off in the name of student safety. Harvard is right to allow student newspapers the same degree of freedom that off-campus newspapers in this country enjoy; such freedom allows students to better grapple with and understand the decisions made in the real world by newspapers that they may read, write for, or be offended by in the future.

Similarly, Harvard should grant its individual students a right of expression commensurate to the one enjoyed by all citizens in public America. While requiring a permit to be approved in advance for all public expression, large or small, is a temptingly easy solution, the administration should work with undergraduates to craft a policy that puts more faith in individual students.

Greg D. Schmidt ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.