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Don't Curtail Free Speech

In The Mail


To the Editors of The Crimson:

"Shut up," he reasoned.

I do not believe this is an unfair characterization of Daniel Mufson's article ["Free Speech Stops at Harassment," February 6, 1990]. Mufson has presented a well-reasoned defense of many of the antiharassment codes that are nevertheless dangerous and counterproductive. Society should demand a more constructive approach to the undeniable problem that every sort of harassment presents.

The first failure of such codes rests in their inherent ambiguity. Aside from categories of speech that have long been considered punishable--such as threats, physical acts and "fighting words"--universities are unable to draw a satisfactory line that defines harassment without endangering free expression, a liberty that is essential to preserve a productive educational environment. What exactly is an "objectionable epithet" or a "demeaning depiction?" Exactly how far can one go before it is deemed "too far?" Who is to decide?

Mufson claims that a clause "simultaneously asserting the importance of academic freedom" will help. But this suggestion simply restates the problem. Where does academic freedom stop and harassment begin? Speech restriction is a slippery slope that should be avoided.

The second and far more important objection to anti-harassment codes is that they are counterproductive. If the goal of these rules is to improve the educational environment for minorities, one should expand the amount of speech, not restrict it. Punishment of harassers does nothing to solve bigotry; it can only reinforce resentment. A university that muzzles bigots loses the opportunity it has to educate them. Repression of prejudiced sentiments allow bigots to graduate and become more influential bigots in the real world. Because of this lost opportunity, any restriction of speech is an abdication of a school's duty to educate its students.

Harvard, like all schools, should allow all types of speech and respond to offensive and degrading speech with education, not repression. Scott McElhaney   Harvard Law School

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