A couple of weeks ago, a large banner appeared in front of the Science Center. “Free Speech,” it proclaimed in large block letters. I moved a bit closer, confused, and saw that at the bottom it said, “Sponsored by the Harvard Libertarian Forum.” I was still confused—it seemed as if this group were making a statement, but I wasn’t sure why they felt the need to do so on Harvard’s campus because I couldn’t imagine anyone being reprimanded for expressing an opinion here. I’ve actually found myself surprised by both the variety of opinions present among the undergraduate population and the eagerness with which everyone seems to want to volunteer their opinions, leftists, liberals, and conservatives alike.
It wasn’t until I read the Crimson article about the free speech wall the next day that I learned that it was supposed to serve as a statement against Harvard’s limitations on free speech, which a member of the Libertarian Forum summarized as disallowing students from saying “discriminatory things,” but which actually consist very specifically of a ban against hate speech. In fact, the College Handbook states explicitly that, “speech not specifically directed against individuals in a harassing way may be protected by traditional safeguards of free speech.” I find the Libertarian Forum’s dedication to complete freedom of speech, regardless of whether or not the speech is harassment, alarming and indicative of a larger, troubling trend in American society.
Our nation is obsessed with the concept of freedom. The majority of U.S. citizens seem to think of theirs as the freest of all countries, and any perceived attack on this freedom is seen as a sacrilegious desecration of the Constitution, America’s holy book. However, laws, including those in the Bill of Rights, exist for a reason—to protect citizens. The provision of freedom of speech serves, accordingly, to protect people from being punished for their ideas and beliefs. However, this freedom can backfire and end up punishing people not for their ideas but for their identities when hate speech comes into play. There must be a carefully thought-out balance between freedoms and restrictions of speech in order to create a society where citizens not only feel free to express themselves, but also are free from fear and violence.
The most common argument I have encountered for unrestricted free speech on college campuses is that if we prohibit people from saying certain things, they will simply never talk about them. As a result, their prejudice and oppression—the problems that we are trying to stamp out in the first place with restrictions on speech—will continue quietly, unchecked. However, the argument goes, if we allow people to express these thoughts openly, then there will be discussion about them that leads to greater understanding. This was the view expressed by the member of the Harvard Libertarian Forum quoted in the article, and one that I think is fundamentally misguided.
There certainly should be dialogue around issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. If someone has prejudices, a good way to erase these prejudices can indeed be to engage in dialogue with that person in order to understand where their attitude is coming from and educate them about the moral and logical fallacies of their prejudice. But there is also a need to protect people from having violence perpetrated against them. When someone calls a black person the “n” word out of hatred, he or she is not expressing a new idea or outlining a valuable thought. They are committing an act of violence. Speech has great power. It can—and often does—serve as a tool to marginalize and oppress people. Laws that restrict hate speech simply seek to prevent violence against marginalized, oppressed groups in order to prevent them from becoming further marginalized and oppressed.
There are freedoms to do things, and there are freedoms from things. When our freedom to speak our mind impinges on someone’s freedom from fear, or on someone’s right to feel safe in their community, then that freedom should not stand unregulated in any group that wishes to create a safe and respectful society for its members. We cannot create a respectful learning environment at our university if students from marginalized groups feel that their administration condones acts of violence against them. University regulations against hate speech are entirely necessary for maintaining respect and dignity among the student body, and Harvard’s policies to this end are well thought-out and fair—and certainly not worthy of protest.
Reed E. McConnell ’15 is an editorial comper in Greenough Hall.