Free-Speech Paranoia

In the Right

When you are losing a public debate, nothing breathes new life into your cause like accusing your critics of suppressing free speech.

Consider Harvard’s illustrious English department, which offered the Morris Gray Lectureship to Tom Paulin, a poet who has said that Brooklyn-born Jews who move to Israeli settlements should be shot dead and who refers to the “Zionist S.S.” in one of his poems. Having come under fire for its choice, the department cancelled Paulin’s invitation.

Three days of angry letters to the editor and accusations of censorship later, the department had a change of heart and re-invited Paulin. Why? As Marquand Professor of English Peter Sacks told The Boston Globe, “Free speech was a principle that needed upholding here. This was a clear affirmation that the department stood strongly by the First Amendment.”

But talking about the controversy as though it were about free speech misses the mark. The question whether Paulin has the right to speak here is very different from the question whether he should speak here. Similarly, the question whether the English department has the right to invite him is very different from the question whether it should invite him.

It would make sense to talk about rights if Harvard’s administration had overturned the invitation, or set down regulations on what Paulin may say when he comes. The right to free speech protects people from being silenced by official power. Harvard Law School, for example, is tossing around the idea of a campus speech code, and free speech activists would find an excellent cause for themselves by taking a stroll north of the Science Center.


But they will not find one at the College. The criticism of Paulin’s invitation was that, given the kinds of things he says, the English department shouldn’t have invited him—not that it didn’t have the right to do so, or that the University should step into the fray. Moreover, the English department chose of its own accord to un-invite Paulin and then to re-invite him. If public criticism had anything to do with these decisions, that says more about the department’s lack of backbone than about any real limitations on free speech.

At about this point, unsympathetic readers will make the infamous “chilling effect” argument, according to which such criticism as was directed at the department makes people throughout Harvard reluctant to express controversial views. The most infamous chiller is none other than Harvard’s president. We were chilled, people tell us, when Big Bad Larry expressed concern over anti-Semitism at elite universities earlier this year. And, while leaving the final decision up to the English department, Summers is said to have objected to Paulin’s selection in private conversations with faculty, who supposedly found these conversations downright frigid.

But what the chilling-effect argument really amounts to is the following claim: “Even though I face no official repercussions for speaking my mind, I’ll keep silent because certain people, some of them important and influential, criticize what I say.” That, my friends, is the price of free speech. Your right doesn’t prevent my criticizing what you say when I think it’s wrong, or telling you that you shouldn’t have said it; and it doesn’t require me to happily accept as an answer to the question “why did you say that?” the words of a rebellious teenager: “because I can.”

Suppose I shout racist slogans in Harvard Square. Having spoken my mind freely, I will have scorn heaped upon me by those who are free to speak theirs: I will be chilled. This is a triumph of free expression. If, on the other hand, criticism is not warranted—and Paulin’s defenders say it is not, claiming his remarks were taken out of context—the appropriate response is not “how dare you criticize me,” but “here’s why your criticism is wrong.”

In any case, people are surprisingly resistant to the chilling effect. Isn’t it interesting that those who are susceptible to getting chilled always manage to speak their minds anyway? So it is that Professor of Psychology Patrick Cavanagh, who signed the anti-Israeli divestment petition that Summers criticized earlier this year, can write a letter to The Crimson about the Paulin flap and tell “Ayatollah Summers” that his “bigotry is showing.” Those do not sound like the words of a chilled man. Nor does Paulin seem to have suffered much hypothermia, as his friends report that he will likely accept the English department’s latest invitation and come to Harvard next spring (assuming that the number of department reversals between now and then is even, not odd).

As far as the department is concerned, it’s a bit disingenuous for English professors to talk as though they were guided in their deliberations by a deep concern over free speech. If un-inviting Paulin really compromised the department’s commitment to the First Amendment, why couldn’t this smart group of Harvard professors see so until after being attacked for revoking the invitation? That may not be a fair criticism of the entire faculty, as the group that un-invited Paulin was, according to The Crimson, smaller than the group that re-invited him. But the professors who were involved in and supported both decisions manifestly lack any semblance of a spine.

The department is free to invite whomever it wishes to lecture in its name. To the extent that its decision is motivated by principle, it should stick to its guns—just as the rest of us should stick to ours when we think its principles are wrong. But when it gets rightly criticized for a dumb decision, and then follows up on that dumb decision with two cowardly ones, let’s not kid ourselves with all this banter about free speech.

Jason L. Steorts ’01-’03 is a philosophy concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.