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Moderation or Suffocation?

University Hall.
University Hall. By Sung Kwang Oh
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

This past week, the Dean of Students’ Office rolled out a new policy mandating that all extracurricular organizations welcome DSO “neutral moderators” to engagements with “controversial” speakers. In addition, organizations will have to register speakers with the DSO a month in advance. Moderators will have the power to exercise a “two-strike policy” on disruptive audience members, and the DSO may also cancel events they see as potentially ending in violence.

In brief, we find these new guidelines paternalistic, ineffective, and contrary to the College’s stated goals of free speech.

When inviting speakers to campus, student organizations no doubt must be held responsible for the consequences of their invitation and event, but the College should also assume these organizations and their leaders to be mature enough to execute effective due diligence in researching speakers and managing audiences.

It’s concerning that the policy draws a line between undergraduate events and those of the broader campus. This infantilizing division not only breaks down the potential for collaboration between undergraduates and their graduate peers, but also sends a message about the University’s lack of trust in undergraduates’ maturity.

The extra guidance is not only unnecessary but insulting. While we understand the College’s wariness about heated protests, we do not think this policy is an effective way to prevent dangerous escalations. An individual moderator does not have the ability to control an agitated crowd, especially the sort of the crowds the College is likely most worried about. We might recall when student protestors interrupted a Kennedy School forum at which University President Lawrence S. Bacow was speaking to demand divestment from fossil fuels. What more could a moderator really have done to stop them or even deescalate the situation?

Beyond issues of efficacy, this policy precludes the spirit of inviting speakers to openly and honestly discuss controversial issues. If student groups have to jump through a litany of hoops from the administration merely to get their approval — or rejection — their ability to promote intellectually rigorous conversation will be drastically limited. These stringent rules may very well discourage speakers and students alike, while also logistically inconveniencing leaders of extracurricular organizations. It is a great privilege to attend a University where so many significant thinkers and leaders come to share their ideas; making that exchange of ideas more difficult detracts from the institution as a whole as well as the individual experiences of its students.

We are also concerned that this policy will unequally affect conservative speakers, who are more likely to be protested against on campus. Since the College has a well-established liberal bent, conservative speakers are more likely to be deemed controversial. It would be easy, for example, to categorize conservative speakers as sparking threatening situations, based merely on the larger number of perturbed students. Just because these speakers represent a campus minority, however, does not dismiss their right to share ideas.

But more importantly, we feel it necessary to ask what “controversial” even entails and why the DSO should be given the authority to answer that question on a case-by-case basis. The policy is troublingly vague and, in so being, threatens the autonomy of student groups on campus we have often defended. What will these moderators do, and what qualifies them as neutral? How will they determine a potential for violence? What is the formal registration process? How are “disruption,” “controversial,” “VIP”, and “violent” going to be defined? It does not appear to be good practice to institute a policy without fully defining all pertinent terms.

Without trafficking in slippery slopes, we worry that this ambiguity and the unstructured power it affords the DSO and its moderators are not so far off from a system of outright censorship. It’s not the University’s job to control speech, protest, and passionate debate. The paternalistic control of student forums is not only unwelcome on this campus, but corrosive to the statues of truth and free discourse that undergird Harvard’s purported mission.

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.

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