After the distribution of inflammatory flyers across campus sparked community outrage and a swift administrative response, students and two House Masters criticized College administrators for diverting the conversation away from what they say are the most salient issues surrounding the controversy.
In the wee hours of the morning last Friday, students in all nine River Houses received flyers promoting a new fake final club that included provocative phrases such as “no fucking Jews,” “Jews need not apply,” and “Coloreds OK.”
Within hours, College administrators called in at least one student group leader in an effort to determine who was responsible for the flyers. They also recruited staff in the Houses to help investigate, according to an op-ed in Time written by Pforzheimer House Masters Nicholas A. Christakis and Erika L. Christakis ’86.
And by afternoon, Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds denounced the flyers in an emailed statement to The Crimson that drew ire from some for placing undue focus on free speech, rather than final clubs.
“As an institution of higher learning, we are committed to engendering and safeguarding the free expression of ideas, including those that we might find offensive,” Hammonds wrote in a segment of her statement. “This commitment should not be mistaken, however, for the tacit approval of all speech that occurs on our campus.”
Hammonds’ critics say they wish her statement had been more concerned about issues surrounding final clubs, which they say promote a dangerous and exclusive social space on campus.
In their op-ed in Time, the Pforzheimer House Masters decried the “hyper-vigilance about campus speech” that they feel has detracted from larger issues surrounding final clubs.
“In the recent Harvard case, it also literally blinds authorities to more pressing problems for our students, such as the sexist and dangerous behaviors that still go unchecked behind closed doors,” they wrote.
Students echoed these sentiments, saying the real issue at hand is social space, not free speech.
“The easy way out of this situation is to talk about language that most people already know is offensive,” Carolyn W. Chou ’13 said. “The broader, harder conversation is about the social culture at Harvard.”
Chou, who went door-to-door in September 2011 to distribute letters discouraging sophomore men from participating in the final club punch process, said that the administration was sidestepping the need to be critical of final clubs.
William H. Ryan ’14 added that the reaction seemed “absurd” given the “obviously satirical” nature of the flyers.
“It’s a little overblown for all of this,” Ryan said of Hammonds’ statement. “The College would spend its time better dealing with other problems surrounding final clubs and with creating legitimate social spaces.”
The presidents of Harvard’s eight all-male final clubs did not respond to or declined requests for comment.
But an official of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a student rights advocacy organization which has criticized Harvard’s free speech policies in the past, said he had no problem with Hammonds’ statement.
“Harvard is free to have an institutional opinion on expression on its campus,” FIRE senior vice president Robert Shibley said.
However, Shibley disagreed with Hammonds’ assertion that the satirical flyers had gone too far, saying that part of satire’s effectiveness in sparking debate comes from its biting quality.
“Satire still has value in a free marketplace of ideas, and regardless of what message [the makers of the flyers] were trying to communicate, we should protect their right to free speech,” he said.
—Staff writer Michelle Denise L. Ferreol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.