The last time Charles A. Murray ’65 spoke at Harvard, a group of ten students raised signs calling him a white nationalist. Outside the venue, others said he should not have been allowed a platform on Harvard’s campus. Murray is best known for advancing widely discredited claims that there are differences in intelligence between classes partially attributable to race and ethnicity.
At a faculty event aimed at countering Murray’s 2017 talk on campus, History and African and African American Studies professor Walter Johnson said he believes white men may wield free speech as an excuse to disrespect others.
“The question of free speech on campus is defined as more-or-less equivalent to the question of the rights of white men and conservatives to disrespect, insult, bait, and degrade everyone else,” Johnson said. “The performance art of white instigation is indicative not of the embattled character of free speech (read: white privilege), but of its strength on college campuses, of the extraordinary support that a doughy mediocrity like Charles Murray can command.”
This Friday, Murray will speak to Harvard students again, at the invitation of Government preceptor and Government 50: “Data” instructor David D. Kane. Several Harvard faculty and students have criticized the invitation, and the teaching staff has invited an alternate speaker, Sociology professor Jocelyn Viterna.
The latest Murray dust-up resumes a long-running debate at Harvard: whether controversial speakers should be given a platform to speak at the University. Proponents say free discourse is essential to students’ learning and the events give students a chance to engage and critique controversial views, while critics argue such events can legitimize discriminatory or hateful views.
The Faculty of Arts and Sciences Free Speech Guidelines, adopted in 1990 to govern events run by the school and student organizations, emphasize the importance of the “free interchange of ideas” and the “right to express unpopular views” as vital to the University’s teaching and learning mission.
“We assume that the long term benefits to our community will outweigh the short term unpleasant effects of sometimes noxious views,” the guidelines read. “Because we are a community united by a commitment to rational processes, we do not permit censorship of noxious ideas.”
The guidelines permit protests against speakers, but do not allow protesters to prevent audience members from hearing and seeing the event. They establish when Harvard police can eject or even arrest a protestor, and suggest penalties for those who prevent free speech.
In an interview last week, FAS Dean Claudine Gay said she does not believe Murray’s work has has academic merit. She declined to comment, however, on a separate question on whether the FAS free speech guidelines are fit for the current moment.
The 1980s saw some of Harvard’s most intense conflicts between liberal students and conservative speakers.
In 1983, protestors dressed as Grim Reapers disrupted a talk by Caspar W. Weinberger ’38, President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, by unfurling an upside-down American flag from the Sanders Theatre balcony. Two years later, anti-apartheid protesters blockaded South African consul general Abe S. Hoppenstein in the Lowell House Junior Common Room.
Sometimes, those protests became physical.
In 1986, protestors pelted Nicaraguan Contra Jorge Rosales with eggs and blood-like liquid after only three sentences of his speech in Boylston Auditorium. The following year, former Nicaraguan Contra leader Adolfo Calero was physically attacked by a Tufts student on his way to the podium at the Law School, prompting school officials to cancel the speech.
The guidelines allow free speech consistent with First Amendment standards and call for moderators to keep the peace if disruptions are expected at an event. Kennedy School professor emeritus and former dean Joseph S. Nye Jr., who chaired the committee that drafted the free speech guidelines, said the committee thought it was important for speakers of different views to be able to communicate their ideas uninterrupted.
“There was a sort of a slogan that summarized our position, which was, ‘If there is offensive speech, one should censure, not censor,’” Nye said.
“We felt that a moderator of a meeting should say to students, ‘You could hold a sign, you could stand up and turn your back, you could do a number of things to indicate your discontent, but you can’t prevent speech from a speaker to the other members of the audience. You can’t just assume that you have a right to prevent free speech,” Nye explained.
New York University professor A. Michael Spence, who was dean of Harvard’s FAS at the time, wrote in an email that the faculty decided on the policy because they wanted to uphold a strong commitment to free speech while making sure that rights such as safety are protected.
“Generally Harvard and other universities expect visitors with a wide range of views to be allowed to speak even when they express unpopular views or even views that are offensive to many,” he wrote. “The tricky part comes in trying to draw some lines. Presumably for example, saying things that are false is still protected speech. But it may do damage. But hate speech and incitement to violence probably is not.”
In 2007, Harvard police arrested four students for disrupting an Institute of Politics speech by then-FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, criticizing his agency for employing tactics it had employed.
A Middlesex County judge later cleared the students of all charges after Harvard said it would handle the matter internally. Video footage from the event revealed inconsistencies in the police report filed after their arrest and showed that officers had failed to warn the protesters before removing them, which the FAS Free Speech Guidelines require. None of the students faced disciplinary action from the College.
Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky ’07, one of the arrested students, said he feels the free speech guidelines “protect people who already have positions of power and authority.”
“I think what has to happen is the free speech guidelines have to be rewritten with the people who are disempowered on campuses — the people who are disempowered in our community — in mind,” he said.
Gould-Wartofsky, a former Crimson editorial editor, said giving speakers like Mueller and Murray a platform to speak at Harvard amounts to “moral relativism.”
“That’s not why free speech exists — it exists for the opposite reason,” he said. “As I understand it, it exists because people are disempowered in our society and are silenced.”
Still, Rani Kronick ’84, one of the students who protested Weinberger’s 1983 speech, said that while she and fellow protesters weren’t happy that the Defense Secretary had been given a platform, it also gave students an opportunity to express their opposition.
Kronick said she sees a difference between a speaker being given a platform to present a “problematic point of view alone, without moderation,” as opposed to a debate where people can form their own view.
Computer Science professor emeritus and former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 said events with controversial speakers are an “educational opportunity” to teach students how to “recognize and analyze and refute ideas that are corrupted in some way.”
“The Athenians put Socrates to death for being annoying — they were tired of listening to him,” he said. “Dealing with speakers whose ideas are annoying, and offensive, is one of the ways you learn to deal with annoying and offensive ideas, which you are going to have to do for the rest of your life if you are going to be a citizen of a democracy.”
Lewis pointed to his 2001 dispute with Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. ’53 after Mansfield claimed that an influx of Black students to the College in the 1960s contributed to grade inflation.
Lewis said he was “furious” with Mansfield’s comments, so he went into Harvard’s archives and found data to disprove the assertion, publishing an op-ed in The Crimson with the results.
If Harvard cancelled Murray’s speech this Friday, Lewis said students would be left ill-equipped to deal with a future situation in which a colleague or friend promoted Murray’s views.
“You’re not going to be equipped to actually give any argument except that the overlords said that I needed to be protected from listening to him, so he never came,” he said.
Lewis said he did not know much about Murray’s views, but said that Murray’s critics could use the event as an opportunity to “humiliate him publicly by logic and evidence” in a way that the current polarized political environment often prevents.
Despite the FAS’s longstanding policy, the debate around free speech at Harvard continues to resurface regularly.
Perhaps no group has courted those arguments more intentionally than the Open Campus Initiative, a student organization founded in 2017 to “test” Harvard’s commitment to free speech. OCI invited several speakers to campus that year, including Murray and Jordan B. Peterson, a psychology professor who has drawn criticism for his stances on gender identity.
Students also protested when Harvard College Faith and Action invited “ex-gay” Jackie Hill-Perry to speak in 2018. The College placed HCFA on probation the next year after the group pressured a female leader to step down for being in a same-sex relationship.
The College announced in 2019 that student organizations wishing to bring controversial speakers to campus would have to notify the Dean of Students’ Office in advance and use a moderator for the event if the DSO deems necessary.
Asked about the changes, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana stressed the importance of free speech in a 2019 interview, saying that arguing different points of view is important for democratic society.
Katie A. Roiphe ’90 — who was met with backlash for a 1994 speech she gave at Harvard criticizing mainstream feminism — said universities would ideally foster an atmosphere where anyone feels comfortable voicing their thoughts.
“I feel like that ideal, which is that the university should be a place in which you can dispute ideas and people can have legitimately different points of view, is somewhat in danger right now,” Roiphe said. “That was something that I found very oppressive in the ’90s — I felt like I would sit in my classes and there were just things I wasn’t allowed to say so I constantly had that feeling like, ‘I can’t say this thing that’s in my head.’”
“I’m a professor now at NYU, and I definitely think my most important value in my classroom is that everybody should feel like they can say what it is they are thinking,” Roiphe added.
Spence, the former FAS dean, said he thinks the free speech issues universities face today are the same as those they faced in the past, but have been amplified due to the internet.
“We have the same set of issues now with the internet, only on a much larger scale,” he said.
—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.
— Staff writer Kevin R. Chen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @kchenx.