Campus Speech, Interrupted

FM investigates past events at which speakers on campus have been given a less-than-warm welcome.
By Nathan A. Cummings

By now, you’ve probably heard about Rick Perry’s uncomfortable visit to Hanover, although the jury’s still out on whether he really is willing to have anal sex for $102 million. The Texas governor was asked this question, and several others, during a Q&A session following his speech at Dartmouth College last Sunday. The questions—many of which involved sodomy—were distributed to audience members by campus activists who opposed Perry’s stances on homosexuality and gay marriage.

Perry’s experience highlights a key danger of speaking on Ivy League campuses: when addressing a room packed with outspoken, opinionated undergraduates, nothing is sacred. Conservative speakers in particular have often faced unwelcoming behavior from audiences on college campuses whose students are predominantly left-leaning. As eager as Harvard may be to sell itself as a forum for fair and nonpartisan debate, it has seen more than its fair share of disruptions. FM investigates past events at which speakers on campus have been given a less-than-warm welcome.

Student run-ins with speakers have ranged from comical to outright dangerous. Just last year, Michael R. Bloomberg, who graduated from the Business School in 1966, used his commencement speech to rail against the recent trend of colleges rejecting speakers for ideological reasons. “If a university thinks twice before inviting a commencement speaker because of his or her politics,” he said, “censorship and conformity—the mortal enemies of freedom—win out.”

In instances where students were unable to keep speakers away, they have, in the past, resorted to other means of protest, such as walk-outs—as with Alan Greenspan’s commencement speech in 1999. Other similar protests have involved verbal abuse.

Even when a controversial figure is able to deliver their speech uninterrupted, the danger of a heightened student response is not necessarily over after the event ends. In 2003, a heated debate between investment wizard Jim Rogers and HBS student Dmitry Alimov led to an email exchange that went viral in world financial circles. Alimov, whom Rogers called a “chauvinistic know-nothing” for his views on the Russian economy, subsequently received job offers from banks around the world. For better or for worse, the high profile of Harvard events means that controversy here cannot be kept under wraps.

But all of these confrontations pale in comparison to those of the 1980s, when tensions between liberal students and conservative speakers boiled over on several occasions. The antics carried out by protestors 30 years ago make today’s boycotts—and sodomy-focused Q&A sessions—look tame in comparison. In 1983, hecklers nearly derailed a talk by Caspar W. Weinberger ’38, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, by unfurling upside-down American flags from the Sanders Theatre balcony and throwing balloons full of red dye at the stage. Protesters allegedly dressed as Grim Reapers and pointed at Weinberger throughout his speech.

Two years later, South African General Consul Abe S. Hoppenstein was blockaded in the Lowell House Junior Common Room by anti-apartheid protesters and was forced to escape underground using the house tunnels. In 1987, former Nicaraguan Contra leader Adolfo Calero was physically attacked by a Tufts student on his way to the podium at HLS.

So what happened to the bad old days of protest, when speakers faced human barricades and Grim Reapers? In the ’80s, each side blamed the other: Harvard conservatives blasted liberals for killing the university’s atmosphere of free speech, while liberals attacked conservative groups for deliberately booking inflammatory speakers.

Recently, even liberals have made news after appearances on the Harvard stage. Joe Biden found this out last month during his speech at the IOP, when he attempted to commiserate with UC Vice President Sietse K. Goffard ’15 over their mutual position.

“Ain’t it a bitch?” asked Biden when Goffard introduced himself as vice president, which prompted astonished laughter from the audience. The incident was quickly picked up by NBC and Politico, and soon went viral on the Internet, once again proving Harvard’s prominence in world news—and the perils of speeches here gone awry. Ain’t speaking at Harvard a bitch, Joe?