"We must defend hateful people's right to be hateful," said U.S. Representative Barney Frank '61 (D-Mass.) in a speech at the Law School yesterday, provoking heated response from his listeners.
Frank gave the closing remarks at a one-day seminar on hate crimes, a program sponsored by the Jewish Law Students Association. Although he spoke about many of the difficulties faced when trying to legislate against prejudice, it was his comments on free speech which drew the most fire from the approximately 50 people at Pound Hall yesterday.
"The First Amendment guarantees people's right to make anti-gay, anti-Jewish, anti-black and anti-Catholic remarks," said Frank, going on to state that there was a difference between free speech and free behavior.
When second year law student Lisa Krakow advanced the argument that historical oppression made certain kinds of offensive speech less acceptable than others Frank responded forcefully:
"Are you saying it's okay to offend Catholics but not Jews? Laws don't protect just minorities, they protect everyone. The notion that the less powerful are protected by the government against attacks by the more powerful, but that it's not reciprocal is nonsense. If you give the government the power to outlaw speech based on content, where do you draw the line?"
Frank was also questioned about cases when free speech should be considered criminal. Although he agreed that inciteful speech was not protected he said that there was a distinction between "incitement to riot and assaults on dignity. The First Amendment protects the right to do [the latter] verbally."
In keeping with the theme of the seminar, which included panels on "Bigotry Today" and legal remedies to this bigotry, Frank discussed some of the obstacles that anti-prejudice and anti-discrimination legislation faces.
Frank denied the common assertion that "you can't legislate prejudice," citing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as an example of what legislation can do.
Julia R. Gordon '85, the chair of the seminar and a first year law student, said that one of the motivations for the seminar was a belief within the Jewish Law Students Association that bigotry had to be fought by a coalition of its victims.
"Each group has its own problems, but we all have the same kind of motivation. There is a larger need to change public attitudes," Gordon said. "Public attitudes are often defined by fear and ignorance. The answer to fear tends to be education and exposure. This is an effort to be part of this."
Frank's appearance at Harvard comes just two days after a Boston press conference held by his former lover, male prostitute Steven Gobie. Their two year affair and Gobie's assertions that Frank knew that he was running an escort service out of Frank's Washington apartment are the subjects of a current House Ethics Committee investigation.