Harvard College Under FIRE

In a report released this month, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)—a Philadelphia-based organization that rates free speech policies at American colleges and universities—gave Harvard a “red light” rating.

FIRE deemed Harvard a “red light” offender for four out of the six policies that it assessed, condemning those policies for “both clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech.”

FIRE criticized sexual, racial, and religious harassment rules stated in the Handbook for Students, Faculty of Arts and Sciences policies, and a set of free speech guidelines adopted in 1990.

FAS spokesperson Jeff Neal defended Harvard’s commitment to free speech and said Harvard administrators were not bothered by the critical ranking.

“Free speech is a fundamental value of the Harvard community—and the larger academic and educational enterprise—and we therefore take issue with any assertion to the contrary,” Neal wrote in an email.

He added, “We have not reviewed and therefore cannot comment on the material on FIRE’s blog.”

Among the policies which FIRE cited was a line from Harvard’s guidelines which states: “Racial, sexual, and intense personal harassment not only show grave disrespect for the dignity of others, but also prevent rational discourse.... Such grave disrespect for the dignity of others can be punished.”

Another clause that FIRE found objectionable reads: “The determination of what constitutes sexual harassment will vary with the particular circumstances, but it may be described generally as unwanted sexual behavior, such as physical contact or verbal comments, jokes, questions, or suggestions.”

Samantha Harris, FIRE’s director of speech code research, said that such sentences leave students and faculty vulnerable to being penalized for harassment when in fact they were attempting to conduct legitimate academic discussion.

Harris said that Harvard’s codes “mandate” rather than “encourage” respectful behavior.

On its blog, FIRE has recently criticized the kindness pledge which elicited harsh responses when it was posted in Harvard freshman dorms last semester as well as the cancellation of summer school instructor Subramanian Swamy’s courses after he published an inflammatory op-ed.

However, Harris said that FIRE’s “red light” ranking considered only Harvard’s written free speech policies, not its recent actions.

Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, who was sharply critical of the freshman values pledge in August, wrote in an email that “the free-speech cases that have troubled me lately...had nothing to do with these policies [which FIRE condemns].”

Lewis wrote that he “can’t blame Harvard for writing its regulations in ways that its lawyers believe are necessary to stay compliant with Title IX regulations or other such edicts that govern the affairs of higher education.”

But Harvey A. Silverglate, who is co-founder and chairman of FIRE as well as a 1967 Law School graduate and longtime critic of the University, said that Harvard offers “such a vague and broad definition [of harassment] that it’s actually very easy to be convicted for behavior that would be protected in the real world.”

Silverglate added, “You could say things in Harvard Square that you could be punished for saying in Harvard Yard.”

FIRE’s 2012 report rated 392 colleges and universities, stamping 65 percent of those schools with a “red light” rating and only 14 schools with a positive “green light” score.

FIRE has given Harvard a “red light” for the past five years.

—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at