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Permission to Speak Freely

The year’s challenges to free speech on Harvard’s campus give cause for grave concern

By The CRIMSON Staff

Everyone knows that Harvard students and professors like to hear the sound of their own voices, and this year has been no exception. The last nine months at Harvard have been marked by a deafening amount of speech on issues from the grave to the trivial—a divisive war in Iraq, controversy at morning prayers, outcry over a poetry reading and boisterous debates about a phallus made of snow. Arguments and insults have shot across House open e-mail lists. Outspoken feminist Amy M. Keel ’04 and arch-conservative Gladden J. Pappin ’04 have become dorm-room names after unapologetically espousing ideas that were decidedly unpopular with the majority of students. Indeed, this school year, much more than last, was dominated by e-mails and opinion pieces, not sit-ins.

But even though seemingly everyone in the Harvard community has vigorously exercised free speech rights this year, the rights of students and professors to voice their opinions on campus have also been challenged by overzealous administrators and disgruntled students alike. Sometimes forgetting that they have no right that protects them from being offended by what others say, Harvardians can be easy to outrage. The speech of others can be puerile, insulting or offensive. And that is why everyone at Harvard, and especially the University itself, should be careful about what they say.

But despite our outrage, everyone in the University community—from the president to the pre-frosh—must maintain an overriding reverence for free speech. No matter how upsetting, open discourse challenges our assumptions, undermines our prejudices and exposes intellectual rot. The greatest disservice a university can do to its students and staff is to allow healthy debate to be stifled.

Yet the University this year has, at best, a mixed track record.

University President Lawrence H. Summers, for instance, who professes a profound commitment to free speech on campus, inadvertently undermined free speech at Harvard this fall. In his remarks at morning prayers in Appleton Chapel this November, Summers castigated American activists circulating petitions for divestment from Israel, calling the movement anti-Semitic “in effect if not in intent.”

Summers’ remarks did spark some good debate on how appropriate it is for such an influential man to label a whole movement, which contains both anti-Israel crazies and reasoned activists, as anti-Semitic. But his speech still put inappropriate pressure on members of the Harvard community, especially junior faculty striving towards tenure, into distancing themselves from the divestment campaign. No one at Harvard, let alone President Summers, should recklessly throw around accusations of even unintentional bigotry.

A more unsettling challenge to free speech came when students at the Law School demanded a speech code for their peers. After a string of racially-charged incidents last year, a representative from the Black Law Students Association asked that the Committee on Healthy Diversity expand the Law School’s anti-harassment code in order to shield students from future racial insensitivity, specifically from racist speech.

Racist speech is deplorable. But it is dangerous to crack down on any speech—no matter how unpalatable—and speech codes are certainly not the answer. The biggest problem with speech codes is the potential for abuse. Students and administrators can treacherously interpret speech-code guidelines to attack others who have simply been insensitive or sophomoric, not threatening or racist. Students, afraid of repercussions, would also be discouraged from speaking their minds on a range of important diversity issues with even the loosest of rules in place. To its credit, the Law School has so far resisted any broadening of the anti-harassment code, recognizing the steep, slippery slope before it.

The most blatant and deeply disturbing challenge to free speech this year, however, occurred at Harvard Business School (HBS). HarBus, the Business School’s independent student publication, printed an editorial cartoon that criticized HBS’ bug-ridden “Career Link” software, labeling the purveyors of the program “incompetent morons.” Nick A. Will, the editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper, then resigned after administrators called the cartoon a violation of the Business School’s Community Standards requirement that each member of the school have “respect for the rights, differences and dignity of others.” Will’s resignation letter said that an HBS administrator threatened further official action “should…the administration disagree with [Will’s] editorial judgment.”

This blindingly obvious subversion of student press rights rightly caused an uproar. HBS bent its Community Standards clause until it broke. HarBus’s editorial cartoon may have been rude, but sometimes it’s the crass speech that gets the “incompetent morons” to fix their buggy software. Administrators at all levels must keep this in mind before they overstep their bounds and irresponsibly try to shut down dissent.

But even as the University ensures that everyone can speak without fear of administrative crackdowns, it must also be mindful of what it is saying to the rest of the world. That is why the English Department was right to disinvite controversial Irish poet Tom Paulin from delivering the prestigious Morris Gray Lecture last semester. A popular poet in the United Kingdom, Paulin had recently aired virulent anti-Semitic views to the Arab press. If Paulin were a student, we hope that the University would defend his right to produce and disseminate his writing; but because Harvard would have been honoring both Paulin and his poetry by awarding him a coveted platform at the reading, the English department was appropriately judicious in reconsidering its decision to praise his work. There is a fine line between making sure the University does not squash the speech of figures such as Paulin—no matter how odious—and issuing its endorsement in a way that could lend academic legitimacy to such noxious ideas.

It is easy for a campus newspaper to overestimate the challenges free speech has faced. Indeed, students at the College still enjoy rather unfettered free-speech rights. And nuanced cases such as Paulin’s make purist arguments zealously defending the value of open debate even more challenging. But while the University must remain vigilant about keeping Harvard’s imprimatur away from depraved distortions of scholarship, it does not take much to put our community on the path of free-speech infringement. When university presidents start with condemning activists at morning prayers, university censors might then move on to tightening speech codes. Then when oversensitive students or unreasonable school administrators inevitably get offended, they will have a handy set of speech-squashing tools just waiting to be misused. Who knows how stifling the next step could be?

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