In a classic case of Godwin’s Law, free speech absolutists are often asked if they would they would let Nazis demonstrate in public. No one, of course, wants to defend Nazis, but free speech is important because the clash of ideas across the political spectrum helps us determine the best ones. To censor any one group is to give the means to censor any.
The far-right Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. this August, for example, illustrates how that sentiment can be twisted. The alt-right had already risen to prominence with its stridently anti-political correctness stance, framing so-called PC culture as the opposite of free speech. White nationalists at the event lamented that their free speech rights are being disrespected, further highlighting the tradition of white supremacists “[relying] on liberal democratic ideas about opposition to tyranny” in order to enter the political mainstream.
It is in this political climate that the Harvard College Open Campus Initiative hosted the second of the two speakers previewed last April, Charles A. Murray ’65. As expected, Murray’s controversial book “The Bell Curve” caused students to protest the event held this past Tuesday.
This isn’t to say that Charles A. Murray ’65 or the members of the Open Campus Institute are white supremacists. Rather, the reaction to the Murray talk highlights the difficulty of discerning the motives of those who defend their position by invoking their right to speak. Although we have commented on past instances of this defense and its relation to the principle of free speech, discussions about freedom of speech are made even murkier and more pressing with Nazis demonstrating in public.
While the OCI represents an opportunity to broaden campus discourse, they are squandering their potential to be the forum for free speech by exclusively acting as a conservative platform. Both of the guests have been right-wing speakers criticized on college campuses for their positions on marginalized communities, and an upcoming panel on freedom of speech looks to focus on college campuses given the speaker selection.
Given these events and OCI’s stated goal of testing the limits of the Harvard community’s free speech values, it seems that OCI is primarily interested in the challenging the liberal campus orthodoxy and campus leftism more generally. Though we stand by our assertion that OCI has “potential value” in creating campus discourse, they must change course in their selection of speakers if they are to truly promote free speech ideals on campus. OCI can bill themselves as a conservative speakers club or club testing the limits of speech, but not both.
While the former has its benefits, it would truly be a shame if we lost the latter. OCI clearly has the right to invite whomever they wish, just as the rest of the community has the right to criticize them accordingly. However, to shrug off the concerns of the marginalized in the name of freedom of speech while continuing to invite offensive, right-wing speakers is to polarize the principle rather than convince the community of its value. Casting the liberal student body as against free speech for its “political correctness” will only incite further cynicism towards free speech proponents.
Moreover, OCI remains myopic in its concerns regarding freedom of speech as the issue extends beyond college campuses and matters of political correctness. For example, can privately-owned websites deny services on the basis of their patrons’ views? If OCI seeks to spark dialogue, it should look to invite provocative speakers across the political spectrum, such as those who have been harassed by conservatives. Perhaps Lisa Durden, the professor who was fired for making left-wing comments on a Fox News appearance, would be worth inviting.
If OCI seeks to foster debate, it should look to host debates between opposing speakers and give more time for Q&A. If OCI seeks to champion free speech, it should be more than just a right-wing voice. They have the potential to do so, but until they begin inviting individuals from both sides of the political spectrum, OCI should be careful in waving the banner of free speech.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.