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The OutKast Outcry

Writes And Wrongs

By Lauren E. Baer

Last Tuesday, just as the Harvard Concert Commission (HCC) was about to succeed at finally bringing a big name musical group to Bright Hockey Arena, the administration threw a wrench in the process. In an e-mail to Undergraduate Council President Sujean S. Lee ’03, Associate Dean of the College David P. Illingworth expressed concern that the HCC pick, OutKast, might not be an appropriate group for an on-campus concert. “[Coordinator of Student Activities] Susan Cooke and [Assistant Director of Athletics for Facilities and Operations] Jeremy Gibson have done a little research on OutKast,” Illingworth wrote, “and have found out that their language may not be acceptable for many audiences, and also that, reportedly, Rosa Parks once sued the group. These comments cause me to worry that OutKast may not be the best group for the Concert Commission to bring to campus.”

I’m sorry, Dean Illingworth, are you for real?

Judging the “acceptability” of musical lyrics is a subjective process, and it is unlikely that the HCC could ever suggest a musical group that would not be deemed unacceptable by at least a small segment of Harvard’s large and heterogeneous population. However, sponsoring a concert that may be controversial does not run counter to the University’s mission, but rather is in support of it. The University ought to be a forum of open discussion and debate, and in order to do so it must at times support events that might be unpalatable to certain individuals’ tastes.

Indeed, had Illingworth taken the time to look up the Rosa Parks lawsuit he would have found that the judgement in the case contradicts the very argument he was trying to make to the HCC. In the course of rejecting Parks’ claims against OutKast, the judgement heavily endorses the First Amendment right to free expression stating, “It is fundamental that courts may not muffle expression by passing judgement on its skill or clumsiness, its sensitivity or coarseness, nor whether it pains or pleases.” The same claim can, and should, be made about the University’s response to expression, be that expression musical or not.

The perplexing thing about the OutKast dispute is that, in the past, Illingworth and other administrators have regularly recognized the importance of free expression. In fact, the administration is usually so laissez-faire that, according to Harvard Republican Club (HRC) President Brian C. Grech ’03, the administration does not require students groups to seek pre-approval before inviting speakers to campus. Instead, the administration merely asks for notification after a speaker has been invited in case that person is deemed important enough for an official University welcome. Indeed, Grech states that HRC “never notified anyone” before bringing controversial figures David Horowitz and Ann Coulter to campus earlier this year.

So, what has the administration spouting the rhetoric of censorship now? And why is it that HCC has to seek pre-approval of its guests when other student groups do not?

Money is certainly not the answer. Earlier this spring Lee effectively sold full student control over Springfest when she agreed to allow the Office of the President to co-sponsor the event, a deal that was brokered only by assuring University President Lawrence H. Summers that the Undergraduate Council would select a band suitable for people of all ages. But unlike Springfest, any HCC concert held this spring would not receive funding from the central administration. Instead, it would be financed through ticket sales and money allocated by the Undergraduate Council.

Thus, what has administrators on edge, Illingworth says, is the question of size. According to Illingworth, a controversial concert is more troublesome than a controversial speaker “because a concert is open to a lot of people.” Yet, Illingworth’s claim holds little water. In November, over 6,000 people crowded the Albert H. Gordon indoor track and tennis facility to hear the words of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, a far from uncontroversial figure. Moreover, the Clinton audience was more than double the size of the expected OutKast audience, which is capped at 3,000. Additionally, in order to assuage the fear that OutKast might attract unruly individuals from outside out the Harvard community, the HCC volunteered to limit ticket sales to Harvard students, a proposal that College administrators said was unnecessary. Finally, according to members of the HCC, approximately $6,680 has been budgeted for event security, more than enough money to provide adequate crowd control and emergency resources.

Hence the administrative hesitancy to approve OutKast clearly rests on dubious grounds. Yet, Illingworth is a smart man, and I suspect that he knows that his arguments are specious. In fact, so do members of the HCC. Indeed, HCC members see Illingworth’s comments as a foil for other more problematic administrative intentions.

According to one HCC member, it is understandable that the administration would desire some oversight over the bidding and contracting process, given that the HCC is dealing with large sums of money and that the University would ultimately be held liable if problems with the HCC’s contract arose. However, the member observes that the administration’s interest in the bidding and contracting process has clearly gone beyond making sure that documents are legally sound.

He states, “Early in the process the Dave Matthews Band was an acceptable choice and the administration fully supported our short-lived effort to arrange for Dave to come to Harvard. But when that did not work out and we presented OutKast as a second choice, they continuously questioned whether there was sufficient demand to sell out the Bright Hockey Arena, despite polling showing that OutKast was the clear favorite among students. Then they began questioning the acceptability of OutKast’s lyrics based upon second-hand internet content and rumors about the Rosa Parks case. It thus seems clear to me that administrators’ reservations were based solely on their bias against hip hop music and their assumption that bringing a group like OutKast would be more likely to raise safety concerns for students and physical concerns for the arena.”

Perhaps the HCC is well-founded in its suspicions. Perhaps it is completely off-base. But if the latter is true, the administration needs to start talking straight and providing legitimate, non-biased, and factually-grounded reasons for failing to accept the OutKast bid. Tell us, Dean Illingworth, this time for real.

Lauren E. Baer ’02 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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