Academic Dishonesty

Matory’s resolution isn’t really about free speech

Last Tuesday, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) voted to table free speech. At least, that’s what anthropology and African-American studies professor J. Lorand Matory ’82 would have you believe. Matory, who has previously complained about academia’s pro-Israel bias, introduced a motion at last week’s Faculty meeting calling on FAS to reaffirm its commitment to free speech and tolerance of minority views. The Faculty, however, seeing through Matory’s ploy, decided to table the resolution (a sufficient quorum was not present to defeat the proposal).

Free speech is necessary component of free society. But Matory’s resolution in favor of “civil dialogue” isn’t really about free speech at all. The actual text of the motion is only one sentence long, articulating the fairly uncontroversial belief “that this Faculty commits itself to fostering civil dialogue in which people with a broad range of perspectives feel safe and are encouraged to express their reasoned and evidence-based ideas.” Surely, not many members of Harvard’s faculty are opposed to the expression of “reasoned and evidence-based ideas.” Indeed, the Faculty already has in place an extensive and nuanced position on free speech which upholds these basic values. The real point of Matory’s resolution, then, was not to reaffirm trite platitudes, but to push an agenda.

The critical subtext of the resolution is that Matory believes that academics who criticize Israel, such as himself, are marginalized and silenced by their colleagues. While his resolution does not explicitly mention Israel, Matory has previously stated that the proposed motion was a response to his perception of the current state of dialogue on the issue.

Therefore, Matory’s motion is really a specific criticism regarding a controversial issue veiled by an appeal to the principle of free speech in general. As law professor Alan M. Dershowitz argued, Matory “is misusing freedom of speech and academic freedom to make an ideological argument.” Matory disingenuously couched his unpopular claim within a meaningless statement in favor of an ideal that virtually all faculty members would support. This is not the way that dialogue on this, or any other issue, should proceed at Harvard.

Instead of dressing his argument up in the guise of free speech, Matory and others who agree with him would best be served by making their arguments directly and openly. If their claims about a pro-Israel bias are strong enough, they will weather the political storm, even in the face of the prejudices Matory cites. Argumentation is the best way to win allies in academia—not empty referenda.

Legitimate views should never be silenced in academia, and the text of Matory’s resolution correctly argues that people of many different political and ideological persuasions should feel comfortable expressing their opinions without fear of retribution.

The real substance of this resolution, however, lies in not-so-hidden agenda. The Faculty was wise to steer clear of this affirmation of “free speech” and should do so again when the resolution is reconsidered in December.