Harvard Encourages Free Speech

Monday, September 26, 2011

To the editor:

Last Tuesday, Harvard University celebrated the repeal of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) ban on gays in the military by ceremonially opening a Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) office at Hilles. The event fulfilled Harvard’s pledge to welcome ROTC officially back to campus once the military’s discriminatory policy was rescinded.

Although leaders of Harvard’s BGLTQ student groups—both for and against the office’s opening—were invited to attend the afternoon event at Hilles, we also recognized that DADT’s repeal and ROTC’s subsequent return to Harvard have inspired a wide range of strongly held opinions across our student body and throughout our community. In an effort to create a space for students to “speak out” on these issues, the College Office of Student Life, the Women’s Center, and the Harvard Foundation sponsored a separate event the same evening at Memorial Church. In fact, we literally gave a microphone to any student who wanted to criticize—or to support—the decision to invite NROTC back to campus.

Unlike the ROTC event earlier in the day, the forum at Memorial Church was meant to celebrate the BGLTQ community and to acknowledge the need to keep working towards equality for everyone. The views expressed ranged from gratitude for the historic victory of DADT’s repeal to outright opposition to the military and to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To serve as the featured speaker, the College, at the recommendation of students, invited Autumn Sandeen, a transgender Navy veteran, who strongly supported DADT’s repeal despite knowing that it would not benefit her personally.


With University officials in attendance, members of the Harvard community were able to disagree and to air varying viewpoints on these deeply emotional issues in a civil way.  We were particularly pleased that President Faust agreed to attend, thereby helping to foster a culture in which the free expression of views is respected and even divergent opinions are heard.

To imply, as you did in your editorial “Orwell Lives,” that either of these events was designed to stifle dissent is simply false. Not only did students express opposition to ROTC’s return at the College-organized speak out event at Memorial Church, but they also gathered outside the NROTC event at Hilles to actively protest, holding up signs and handing out literature to attendees and to the news media.

Harvard College does not limit free speech; it celebrates it. Instead of suppressing student opinion, the College invited it. Going forward, we will continue to support students in their advocacy activities because we believe that civil dissent should be allowed to flourish on our campus.


Evelynn Hammonds

Dean of Harvard College

Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science, and Professor of African and African American Studies

Suzy Nelson

Dean of Student Life

Harvard College