Why We Cannot Hide Behind Free Speech

Organizations inviting controversial speakers such as Martin Shkreli should consider their merits rather than their notoriety.

Controversy surrounded Martin Shkreli's speech, which took place last week after the Harvard Financial Analysts Club extended him an invitation to campus. Despite Shkreli’s infamy in the pharmaceutical industry and the public eye, he attempted to steer clear of those topics and focused on his investment career. Given his tenuous connections to Harvard itself and his refusal to engage on the topics for which he is known, it is questionable why HFAC invited Shkreli to speak at all.

Although HFAC has not commented on their reasons for inviting Shkreli, his presence appears part of a broader trend, especially on college campuses, that confuses contrarianism for its own sake with intellectual output and achievement. While both are protected, the ideals of free speech are held to improve public debate and recognize multiple viewpoints. In theory, giving those with more iconoclastic views a public platform falls under these goals.

Despite HFAC’s claim that the event would be governed by “guidelines on free speech,” their actions state otherwise. Prior to the talk, HFAC told attendees they could raise any concerns with Shkreli during the question and answer session. However, questions related to his personal or legal issues, the source of many audience grievances, were forbidden. Additionally, at the talk itself, HFAC intentionally attempted to bar press access to the event. Restricting the audience’s questions, preventing honest reporting, and hindering the public knowledge of the event censored free speech rather than permitting it.

While Shkreli may have particular insights into the pharmaceutical industry, his speech did not discuss his experience in that sector, implying that he was invited more for his notoriety. His more than 5000 percent price increase of the drug Daraprim, compounded by fraud charges and a slated court case, are all infamous hallmarks of his pharmaceutical background. Shkreli’s history of harassing women on social media is another cause for concern. Most troublingly, Shkreli has shown no remorse for his actions.

HFAC and similar organizations use free speech to support their assertion that their invitees have something of value to add to campus conversation. In reality, speakers such as Shkreli flood the marketplace of ideas with noise rather than discussion, just to garner attention for those doing the inviting. In the future, we ask those who wish to invite controversial speakers to consider the value of their contribution rather than just their fame. Both should be protected; only the former is wise.