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When Free Speech Hurts



THE hanging of a Confederate flag in the window of the Leverett Towers constitutes a legitimate--and insensitive--exercise of free speech. Accordingly, the Harvard community has a dual responsibility: first, to affirm the right of the student to display the flag and second, to register enough thoughtful disapproval to persuade the person to remove it.

Such action would be consistent with the sentiment of Harvard Faculty members, who recently affirmed the University's commitment to the First Amendment. Displaying a flag is symbolic speech that should not be forcibly silenced. For the University to squash all expression deemed repugnant by certain groups would be to admit that might makes right--the most repugnant conclusion of all.

Restricting the display of the flag would also set a dangerous precedent. Although the Supreme Court has held that "fighting words" are not protected by the Consitution, the flag cannot be considered clear and deliberate provocation. If it were, the University would enter a vast grey area in which it could assume disproportionate power over students' daily lives.

If the University banned the Confederate flag simply because it offends, it will ensure itself impossible decisions in the future. Should Soviet, Chinese, Israeli or Panamanian flags also be forcibly removed because the flags symbolize oppression for some groups?

THE present situation introduces the discrepancy between intention and consequence. For unlike the screamer of racial epithets, the flyer of the flag says he does not intend to offend people.

Whether some members of the University like it or not, the Stars and Bars are part of the state flag of Georgia and are a symbol of regional pride. As such, it is not a preposterous wall decoration for an enthusiastic Southerner.

Unfortunately, the flag is also the emblem of the Confederacy, whose member states seceded from the Union in order to preserve preserve a way of life that included the enslavement of Blacks. Historically, and even today, the Stars and Bars symbolize a certain nostalgia for the racially stratified Old South and its reprehensible practices.

Even if the displayer does not hold this attitude, he must certainly realize that his flag represents vicious race-hatred and dehumanization for many other students, both Black and white. To many in the Harvard community, the Confederate flag is provocative and insulting. Whether the student displaying the flag is oblivious to the pain it causes or just does not care, he should remove the flag from the window immediately.

IF THE community can explain its objection to the displayer of the rebel flag, he might be persuaded to move it from a picture window to an inside wall. This solution would allow the student to fulfill his original purpose of regional representation while sparing others the undesirable overtones of bigotry.

Voluntary removal of the flag, not administrative coercion, is the optimal resolution of the current controversy. The Harvard community can encourage this outcome by letting the flag's owner know that even the suggestion of racism will not be tolerated on campus.

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