Martin Shkreli—the price-hiking former pharmaceutical executive once dubbed the “most hated man in America”—hadn’t even started speaking when someone pulled the fire alarm.
Still awaiting trial for securities fraud, Shkreli was scheduled to speak at Harvard’s Science Center in February. But some students were determined to make it clear they thought that Shkreli had no place at Harvard.
As students shuffled back into the building and Shkreli began his speech, some protesters took seats in the audience to loudly voice their opposition throughout his talk. And around fifteen minutes in, about a tenth of the audience stood up and walked out.
“I think this is a really damaging event and that the Harvard platform shouldn’t be used to give someone like Shkreli legitimacy, space, and power,” Katherine Qian ’20, a protestor, wrote in an email at the time.
Quickly, Shkreli’s visit brought questions of free speech—what it means, and what, if anything, justifies its limitation—to the forefront of campus discourse. While some students argued that Shkreli should be free to state his views on campus, others said his appearance was dangerous and provocative without substance.
Shkreli’s visit was not an isolated incident. In the past year, as confrontations over controversial speakers like Shkreli have have roiled college campuses across the country, students have vocally disagreed on whose voices should be given a platform at Harvard.
Despite these at-times heated conversations, however, students and faculty say that the debate on campus has been subdued compared to some other colleges. Earlier this semester, conservative commentator Ann Coulter cancelled her speech at the University of California, Berkeley after riots in the area and some student uproar. Charles A. Murray ’65, a controversial political scientist, saw his talk at Middlebury College end in violent protest.
Richard H. Fallon, a professor at Harvard Law School who teaches a course on the First Amendment, said that he thinks the University has dedicated itself to the protection of free speech.
“On the whole, Harvard is absolutely an institution committed to freedom of speech,” Fallon said. “I am not aware of incidents I would think of as casting the University in a bad light in terms of its commitment to principles of free speech.”
Nearly everyone agrees that free speech is a fundamental value at Harvard. And even as disagreements arise when it comes to just what that looks like in practice, some charge that the familiar premise of the nationwide debate—that free speech is under attack at all—is a false one, at least at Harvard.
Back at the Shkreli event, as the commotion from the fire alarm died down, one member of the Harvard Financial Analysts Club—the group that invited the speaker—came to the front of the lecture hall to read a section of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ “Free Speech Guidelines."
The seven-page document, adopted in 1990, has served as the administrative perspective on free speech for nearly three decades—an affirmation of the University’s commitment to protecting the free expression of both speakers and dissenters.
“Curtailment of free speech undercuts the intellectual freedom that defines our purpose,” the document reads. “It also deprives some individuals of the right to express unpopular views and others of the right to listen to unpopular views.”
Intended to ensure one individual’s free speech could not be protected at the expense of another’s, though, the guidelines also indicate where speech can be limited: namely, in cases of “racial, sexual, and intense personal harassment” or when disruption of a speaker “prevents members of the audience from adequately hearing or seeing the event.”
At Harvard, faculty and students broadly agree that free speech has wide support.
“My general experience is that there is a strong respect for the value of free speech on the Harvard campus,” University Professor Danielle S. Allen said.
“You’re free to say what you want,” Faust said in an interview in 2016. “You're also free to take the hits for saying things that are stupid or prejudicial or uninformed.”
While those at Harvard’s highest levels have largely presented a united front in favor of free speech, some say the broader culture on campus can have a dampening effect on expression.
Divinity School professor Cornel R. West ’74—who authored a widely-circulated statement affirming support for free speech—said he believes that campus culture, rather than direct administrative action, plays the most influential role.
“You’ve got to create a culture amongst students and faculty,” West said. “That’s the most important thing. You never want to begin just with the leadership at the top.”
At Harvard, some conservative students have taken up that mission, arguing that the current culture on Harvard’s largely-liberal campus disadvantages voices outside of its political mainstream. Students across the ideological spectrum, however, agree that free speech in theory should not be a partisan issue.
W. Kent Haeffner ’18, the president of the Harvard Republican Club, said that he thinks Harvard’s predominantly left-leaning student body has made the defense of free speech an increasingly conservative cause.
“This is something that’s a fundamental right guaranteed by our Constitution; that shouldn’t be partisan whatsoever,” Haeffner said. “Conservatives are kind of the main voices speaking out for it on Harvard’s campus and other campuses.”
Kyle G. Sargent ’19, a former board member of the Open Campus Initiative—a new student group that brings lightning rod speakers to campus—said he is alarmed that free speech, in his eyes, has become a partisan issue.
“It really bothers me that free speech has become a conservative cause because, by and large, conservative causes tend to lose if you look at the broad strokes of history,” Sargent said.
And Alexander Z. Zhang ’20, a member of the Harvard College Democrats who said he spoke only on behalf of himself, agreed that the way free speech has become “weaponized” has led it to become a partisan issue, but that it shouldn’t be.
“Free speech is rooted in finding the truth, it’s all about this marketplace of ideas in which the people with the best ideas or the speech that is more truthful or is most in line with American values eventually prevails over all other speech,” Zhang said. “I think that’s not partisan at all.”
While students on the left and right may agree on the value of speech, they tend to depart on what may—or may not—be fit for Harvard’s campus.
“The whole point of free speech is it doesn’t matter how wrong or bad your speech is, you have a right to say it,” Haeffner said. “And if someone disagrees with you, rather than saying you don’t have the right to say it, go out there and use logic and reason and interlocute with them rather than going and saying that this is so wrong that we can’t give it a platform.”
Conor Healy ’19, the president of the Open Campus Initiative, said he worried placing any kinds of limits on speech would put too much power in the hands of whoever is tasked with drawing that line.
“I would say that you can draw that line, but there are fundamental problems with the act of drawing it,” Healy said. “I don’t know that anyone is competent to make that decision.”
According to Healy, the Open Campus Initiative makes its decisions on who to invite not on the viewpoints of speakers, but rather in the quality of the individuals’ arguments. Healy said that he thinks there’s a misperception that the group exists to “court controversy.”
Instead, the Open Campus Initiative brought psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson to campus in April, where he discussed his refusal to use gender pronouns other than “he” and “she” and advocated for defunding women’s studies. Students quietly protested inside the lecture hall, holding a banner of the transgender flag.
“I don’t think there’s a clear line,” Helene Lovett ’19, who helped organize the protest, said. “It’s just a matter of acknowledging that certain speakers can and have incited violence and, in their choosing, in whatever happens at the talk, to prioritize the safety and protection of students who are the subject or involved.”
Lily M. Velona ’18, at the time of the Peterson event, added that there is a distinction between free speech and the kind of rhetoric Peterson uses regarding transgender individuals.
Giving anti-transgender speakers a platform “normalizes the idea that we can refuse to acknowledge the personhood, by putting it up for debate, of an incredibly vulnerable group of people,” Velona said.
Fallon said his ideal free speech culture would allow for the expression of even “ill-considered” speech, where no idea is censored. But, he added, there are instances at other universities and in workplaces where racial epithets and other expressions of speech “are used to create an intimidating environment that is actually hostile to open exchanges of ideas.”
“I think a university has to walk a very fine line on one hand maintaining a vital free speech culture in which there are no ideas that are inexpressible and in which there is some breathing space for hotheaded, ill-considered insulting assertions and references,” Fallon said. “On the other hand, the university has to maintain an environment where its students can’t be bullied.”
—Staff writer Jamie D. Halper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JamieDHalper.