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Permissible, but Not Welcomed

Free speech comes with responsibilities

By The Crimson Staff

On Monday, members of the Harvard Extension School Cultural Studies Club will host a “black mass” with help from the New York-based Satanic Temple. While it is truly distressing that these groups are conducting an event so hurtful to a major portion of the Harvard community, we support the University’s decision to condemn the actions but allow the students to exercise—however tastelessly—their right to express and assemble themselves.

Extension School Dean of Students and Alumni Affairs Robert H. Neugeboren ’83, struck the right note in his public statement, at once acknowledging the students’ right to free expression but at the same time condemning their crass approach.  “We do not agree with the student group’s decision to stage an event that is so deeply disturbing and offensive to many in the Harvard community and beyond,” Neugeboren wrote. “While we support the ability of all our students to explore difficult issues, we also encourage them to do so in ways that are sensitive to others.”

We acknowledge that a student group can and should have the right to operate as it desires within the confines of the law and University rules. Prohibiting the demonstration would be incompatible with the spirit of autonomy and intellectual engagement fundamental to a university setting.

At the same time, a demonstration that deeply disrespects the core beliefs of other students is antithetical to any sense of community. The hurt the event will cause has no place at Harvard, a place for respectful dialogue, not inconsiderate noise. The organizers have a right to hold this event, but they also have a responsibility to use their rights thoughtfully and respectfully. In this case, their misguided decision to go ahead with this event has overshadowed their professed purpose.

If the Cultural Studies Club genuinely desires to foster educational discussion, there are other, less offensive routes that the club could take. For example, the club could instead host a lecture on the historical context of the back mass, or even have members of the Satanic Temple come to discuss their practices. It is suspect that the Cultural Studies Club instead chose the route that would cause the most hurt to their peers. We fail to see what unique and essential educational goal is met by the staging of the “black mass” that could not have been met with a mere discussion of its history.

We urge the club to reflect deeply on their actions, and to ask themselves why, if they only seek to educate rather than to practice a faith they actually believe, they have chosen to stage an event so egregiously contrary to basic decency.

It is in times of distress, however, that we must hold firm to our culture’s beliefs of free expression. Urging the University to forcefully shut down the event would run counter to Harvard’s principles of tolerance and open discussion. Instead, we support the Catholic and Christian students in their peaceful response, which will consist not of violence or ad hominem attacks, but rather of prayer. We also appreciate the administration’s commitment to an open forum for diverse ideas.

Hopefully, this unfortunate situation will be a time for members of the University to gather together in solidarity and respect for each other. The multi-denominational Harvard Chaplains—which include representatives from major Western and Eastern religious traditions, as well as atheistic, agnostic, and questioning members—have released a statement asking for “open and honest, but also respectful” dialogue.

We hope the University community can gather together against unnecessary displays of hate—whether related to religion, race, or sexuality—and join in allowing but not condoning the actions of this group.

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