The Right to Offend

Harvard’s response to controversial flyers misses the point

Controversial flyers satirically advertising a fictional Pigeon final club, anonymously placed under students’ doors and bearing provocative statements like “Jews need not apply” and “Coloreds OK” rightfully sparked community indignation. Less thoughtful was the knee-jerk administrative response that condemned the flyers as “deeply disturbing” and needlessly sought out the distributors.

Although the authors of the invitations undermined their credibility with excessively incendiary rhetoric, the administration’s misplaced response only further undermines meaningful discussion on the roles and responsibilities of final clubs. Though clumsy and insensitive, the flyers brought to light the well-deserved notoriety of the all-male social clubs. Yet administrative efforts to seek out the perpetrators ignored the very real problems raised by the flyers and comes uncomfortably close to censorship of free speech, the most essential element of education.

Efforts to enforce civility, though well intentioned, are ultimately myopic. The desire for some students to avoid discomfort does not trump the right to freedom of expression, disagreeable as it may be. Certainly, criticisms of and limitations on hate speech in many cases are necessary, but a poorly rendered satirical flyer can hardly be considered an incident of hate speech. Indeed, the administration’s response to the flyers undermines limitations on hateful speech that are truly warranted and further marginalizes the gravely misunderstood principle of political correctness in the eyes of many.

In responding to the flyers rather than the clubs themselves, administrators have pointed to their obviously inflammatory and tasteless language while ignoring the more pressing issues masked beneath. Although off-color, the flyers strongly underscored problems with exclusivity of final clubs by playing on their reputations as exclusive and sexist. Paradoxically, the University seeks the authors who brought these issues into the focus rather than addressing the deeper issues themselves.

And the issues are many. Harvard cut official ties with the all-male clubs in 1984 for violating its anti-discrimination policy by excluding women. Final clubs have also long suffered allegations of excessive drinking, hazing, and sexual assault. While the University does not release statistics about campus sexual assault, many in the Harvard community believe final clubs create unsafe environments. While there have been better efforts to bring about discussion on these issues by individual students, the College has not taken leadership on this important student issue.

We urge the administration to shift away from its investigation into the flyers’ authors and to focus instead on the more salient issues, like the social vices the satirists attempted to draw attention to. Patronizing students by limiting offensive speech disallows the opportunity for students to judge action by their own moral agency and often obscures, as is the case in this incident, a more pressing message. Disruptive pamphlets like the Pigeon flyers are, perhaps, necessary evils in an open culture of free speech. Ultimately it is a small price to pay.