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Free Speech on Center Stage, Nationally


By Peter J. Howe

After a cooling down period since the late 1960s, American universities around 1982 began to be plagued again by student hecklers. To name a few of the more prominent incidents:

*at Brown, in October, 1981, 13 students attending an Alumnae Hall speech by CIA Director William J. Casey began reciting the "Jabberwocky" poem by Lewis Carroll, interrupting Casey's speech. The Jabberwocky 13, as they came to be known, were reprimanded by the administration, but not formally punished.

*at Stanford in 1981, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger '38 had to battle with protestors screaming and banging on the windows of Kresge Auditorium as he spoke. With difficulty, Weinberger managed to get the speech off.

*at Smith, United Nations Ambassador Jeane E. Kirkpatrick was invited to be the 1982 commencement speaker, but voluntarily declined after a variety of student groups protested her planned appearance.

*at Berkeley on February 15, 1983, Kirkpatrick was shouted down by Berkeley's Students Against Intervention in El Salvador while giving a speech to a packed crowd of more than 900 at Wheeler Auditorium. Kirkpatrick was forced to leave the stage, but later returned to finish her speech. There was no administrative punishment for students involved.

*at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School last March 20, Nobel-Prize winning economist Lawrence Klein was giving an introductory economics lecture when three followers of political guru Lyndon LaRouche burst in, accusing Klein of Nazism and genocide. Klein responded, "I insist that you are a bunch of screwballs, and would you please get out," and university police arrived and evicted the LaRouchites. Two weeks later, the South African ambassador to the United States was scheduled to come to Penn to speak on apartheid, but opted out when members of the eight-group United Minorities Council threatened a mass demonstration.

President Bok, in his open letter on free speech issued last Friday, writes that all those incidents weighed heavily in his decision to sit down at the typewriter.

The issue had also begun to appear closer to home. Two years ago, speeches by a Palestine Liberation Organization representative and by the Rev. Jerry Falwell were disrupted by demontsrators.

Last year, at the Law School, members of the Black Law Students Association refused to allow Jews in the audience at a speech by a Palestine Liberation Organization representative to ask questions. But what seems to have tipped the scale was the Caspar Weinberger disaster.

When Weinberger came to speak to some 1200 people at the Law School Forum last November 17, dozens of demonstrators, some dressed as Grim Reapers, some unfurling American flags upside-down from the Sanders Theatre balcony, some hurling blood-red water balloons at Weinberger, made his speech virtually inaudible.

Bok said he apologized to Weinberger for the incident: "I wanted to give him a chance to yell at me, but he didn't."

In the aftermath of November 17, the Faculty spent a good deal of time in intense discussion about free speech. Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield went as far as to recommend that Weinberger be invited back as the Commencement speaker, while two Quincy House Trotskyists who had participated in the protests were warned by their Senior Tutor that a repeat of the incident might warrant expulsion.

Finally, last April, the Faculty asked Bok for his advice and clarification of what free speech means. "Any violation of free speech is disturbing, and I think that there have been a number of incidents going back some years, not only at Harvard but at other places as well," said Henry Rosovsky, former dean of the Faculty. "When you have a pain in the foot, and then a few months later you have a pain in your knee, eventually you come to the conclusion that you have to go to the doctor."

Harvard has a treatment for the disease, to continue Rosovsky's analogy, but the 1970 Resolution on Rights and Responsibilities has never really been put to use.

While abridgement of speaking rights is far less intense than in the '60s, "my sense is that there is more heckling in the last few years than in the few years before that," says Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics John Womack Jr. "It goes up and down depending on the intensity of public concern over one or another issue and the intensity of organization by one or another political group on campus."

Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III calls the Weinberger incident "a powerful exception" to a general improvement in the atmosphere of tolerance over the last 10 years, but adds that "the incident--though ugly--may have brought home the importance of free speech for many."

Echoing Epps's feelings, senior Corporation member Hugh Calkins '45--who served as the seven-man governing body's point man during what he calls the "trouble days of the '60s and '70s"--says he was deeply disturbed by the Weinberger protests and feels the incident called for an official response. "But I view the current period as somewhat typical [as far as free speech problems]. I don't view the '80s as being very different from the average of the '50s, the '40s or the '30s."

Bok's letter--his seventh on university principles since he began the practice five years ago--takes the form of a fairly specific attack on the various defenses raised for heckling, many of which were used to defend the shouting down of Weinberger. To the argument that certain speakers have committed or overseen evils so terrible that they have forfeited their right to speak, Bok responds that "no one has the right to decide for others which speakers are to be heard or which public discussions deserve to take place."

*To the argument that officials like Weinberger have more free speech than others because of heavy media coverage--an argument he acknowledges--Bok retorts, "Truth will emerge more often from a process of free discussion and debate than it will if the government or any other group undertakes to decide which ideas will be heard and which will be suppressed."

And to the argument that hissing and heckling are themselves viable expressions of speech which deserve protection, Bok shows his fundamentally lawyerly approach to the issue by responding with the old chestnut, "'Your freedom to swing your fist stops at the point of my nose.' . . . If persons opposed to a speaker's policies wish to publicize that fact, they can do so in various ways that will not interfere with the lights of the speaker and the audience," such as peaceful picketing, petitions, or leafletting.

Few students or faculty interviewed said the content of Bok's letter was fairly predictable, but the president appears to be getting almost uniformly favorable response. "It made me feel proud to work here," says Mansfield, one of the professors most concerned about the Weinberger incident, adding that he appreciates the way Bok specifically attacked the arguments used to justify heckling. Those argument "seemed to me so poor an understanding of what free speech is al about--namely, an ability to listen. I thought that reaction was worse than the incident itself," Mansfield says.

Corporation member Andrew P. Heiskell '28 says, "I thought the letter was fine, dandy. I told him so. I think we [on the Corporation] all deplored [what happened to Weinberger]. If you're not going to let a guy speak, what's the point of having a university?"

Undergraduate Council Vice-Chairman Brian R. Melendez '86, who authored a 120-page report last spring on free speech which was delivered to top University officials, including Bok, says, "I'm happy about the letter. I'm not surprised by it." Although Melendez says he was originally concerned that Bok would ignore some of the arguments for heckling--"hecklers have certain rights as well, and those rights should be protected"--he feels that "President Bok's position is actually much closer to the Council's than most undergraduates might like to admit. I hope a lot of people read it."

But Pierce Professor of Psychology Richard J. Herrnstein, whose arguments that intelligence is genetically determined prompted students in the early '70s to label him racist and repeatedly shout him down in class, says that while he thinks "the letter is good . . . the University is pretty feeble in its efforts to protect free speech." On a day-to-day basis, free speech is not threatened, says Herrnstein, who recalls that he had to call in Cambridge and Harvard Police to try to keep order in his classroom. But in the controversial cases that put the ideal of free speech to the test, like Weinberger's visit, Harvard is pusillanimous, Herrnstein charges.

Others, though, doubt that there is anything but a consensus at Harvard about protecting free speech, noting that most of Weinberger's hecklers were not Harvard students. Womack, who calls Weinberger representative of this country's "frivolously malevolent policies" in Latin America, says he feels the entire Faculty opposes "deliberate efforts to drown out somebody."

Damon A. Silvers '86, a member of the Southern Africa Solidarity Committee who helped organize the Weinberger protests, says that he and other protestors only wanted "to make him feel uncomfortable . . . I can't think of a single person in the undergraduate community who's in favor of shouting speakers down."

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