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After a Harvard Law School student made a public comment many perceived as anti-Semitic, the school plunged into a debate about free speech on campus, and Law School Dean Martha L. Minow quickly denounced the statement as “offensive.”
Now, two weeks later, University President Drew G. Faust has affirmed that free speech does not mean the speaker should be protected from backlash.
“You’re free to say what you want,” Faust said in an interview Wednesday. “You're also free to take the hits for saying things that are stupid or prejudicial or uninformed. Those two things go together.”
Controversy engulfed the Law School last month when a student—whose name was originally withheld, but is now identified as third-year Law student Husam El-Qoulaq—asked former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni “How is it that you are so smelly?” Many quickly decried the comment as anti-Semitic, and Minow called the comment “an embarrassment to our institution” in an email to Law School students, faculty, and staff.
The comment soon reinvigorated a discussion on the degree to which speech deemed offensive should be protected, with some demanding that El-Qoulaq’s name become public to hold him accountable for his remarks. The Law School removed footage of the event and declined to name El-Qoulaq, and the Harvard Law Record initially removed comments from its website identifying him—though El-Qoulaq eventually decided to allow the Record to publish his name.
Faust argued that free speech entails accountability.
“With freedom comes responsibility,” she said. “So I believe when free speech results in utterances that are wrong or appalling, it’s incumbent on the rest of the people in the community to point that out, correct the record, denounce the prejudice, whatever the needed intervention should be.”
El-Qoulaq has since apologized for his comments, which he said he did not intend to be anti-Semitic. While several alumni have called for El-Qoulaq to be punished, he said last week that administrators have told him he will not face disciplinary measures.
Minow mirrored Faust’s stance in her email to Law School affiliates, upholding the value of free speech while maintaining that open discourse should go both ways.
“The fact that speech is and should be free does not mean that hateful remarks should go unacknowledged or unanswered in a community dedicated to thoughtful discussion of complex issues and questions,” Minow wrote.
Free speech became a topic of widespread discussion at the Law School earlier in the semester when students debated over posters in the Caspersen Student Center. William H. Barlow, a third-year Law School student, put up posters comparing Reclaim Harvard Law School, a student activist group, to Donald Trump, prompting members of the group to remove the posters and sparking a debate about the freedom of expression.
At the time, Minow wrote in an email to the school that anyone could use the Caspersen Student Center space—which members of Reclaim Harvard Law School had been occupying since February demanding better treatment of minority students on campus.
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