Free But Inactive

Free speech is alive at Harvard, but students don’t take enough advantage

As a university with a reputation for vibrant academic discourse that is frequently host to a diverse array of events, it would seem to odd to single out Harvard as a violator of free speech. Nevertheless, perhaps because of Harvard’s renown, campus events that would not receive the same scrutiny elsewhere draw the media and the public eye. For example, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education recently included Harvard in its ranking of the twelve worst colleges and universities for freedom of speech. An article in the Huffington Post written by Greg Lukianoff, President of FIRE, elaborated on the ranking, in which Harvard was listed as the fourth worst campus for civil liberties. Quite how FIRE arrived at its ranking seems likely to remain obscure. In Lukianoff’s post, the “Freshman Pledge”, the Harvard faculty’s pressure on Subramanian Swamy, and Harvard’s alleged censoring of Yale students’ right to use images of Mark Zuckerberg and others were all listed as factors behind the University’s high place in this particular shame list. True, Harvard’s record of protecting free speech is not perfect, but admonishing Harvard’s administration for seriously violating this all-important principle is unwarranted. If a threat to freedom of speech exists on campus, it comes less from the strong arm of the President’s office, and more from the mentality, enthusiasm, and self-censorship of students themselves.

Upon quick inspection, the allegations levied by FIRE appear too insubstantial to make the claim that Harvard does not respect the rights and values of its students. Take, for example, the pressure to make freshmen sign the “Freshman Pledge,” a symbolic and largely insignificant, albeit irritating, addition to the first-year routine. The “effective dismissal” of summer school instructor Subramanian Swamy, meanwhile, was brought about by faculty members—not administration officials—and attempted to curtail what they thought was hate speech, including Swamy’s call for the destruction of mosques in India. Preventing Yale students at the Harvard-Yale football game from designing t-shirts with the names of well-known dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates also seems closer to a legal technicality than a violation of free speech that should merit the University a “worst colleges for free speech in 2012” badge.

For the most part, Harvard explicitly encourages vibrant, and diverse opinions on and off campus. To give just one just one recent example, Harvard withstood widespread criticism to allow the One-State Conference to go forward at the Kennedy School. While the conference served as a forum for controversial and unhelpful solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to have banned the conference or applied pressure for it to be cancelled would, as we argued, have been detrimental to freedom of speech on campus. Last semester, Harvard also notably allowed protesters to pitch a tent city in the Yard as part of the larger Occupy movement. While the administration did in some ways crack down on Occupy Harvard, it still allowed the overall free expression of a message and ideas that were in large part hostile to many recent Harvard policies. The treatment of both these events and countless others amounts to an attempt to permit and indeed foster open expression, not stifle freedom of thought.

Harvard’s student body, on the other hand, does not take full advantage of the opportunities afforded to it by this firm commitment to freedom of speech. Harvard, clearly, is far removed from the times of April 9, 1969, when 300 students stormed University Hall at a time that Crimson writers have since declared an “era marked by protest and student activism.” Even compared to other campuses today, Harvard’s culture simply does not lend itself to creating the levels of concerted protests seen recently at Berkeley and University of California Davis. Individuals who attempt to make the most out of their right to free expression are often met with the laconic and skeptical reservation of their peers. Sometimes, this reaction borders on opposition and even intrusion on the rights of others. For example, pro-life groups have had their posters torn down in the past. Many students reacted with hostility and resentment toward the Occupy movement, reportedly even going so far as to defile protesters’ tents. The inclinations and reactions of students therefore do far more to hinder the fullest expression of freedom of speech on campus than the actions taken by our administration.

Instead, most students express their opinions on a smaller scale, organizing and acting in small groups focused on specific issues. While a select few students devote much of their undergraduate lives to specific causes, popular large-scale movements are an exception. This may leave students with the impression that Harvard is not unified, but splintered among different interest groups. With a student body that appears as establishment and conformity-minded as contemporary Harvard’s, it is not hard to explain why more far-reaching campus discourse seems stunted. Harvard has not violated the intrinsic freedoms of its student body. Then again, with the self-censorship and relative disinterest that our administrators encounter, they have not had the opportunity. Even including Harvard in a freedom of speech ranking seems nearly irrelevant.

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