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In Defense of Free Speech

By Zadoc I.N. Gee
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

The Undergraduate Council has passed legislation advocating for the creation of a committee, equal parts faculty and undergraduate, to review the Faculty of Arts And Sciences’ Free Speech Guidelines. The resource, designed in part to guide student groups on who to invite to speak, seems to be collecting dust on campus; we doubt most undergraduates are aware it exists. The UC’s recommendation to revisit them may prove to be just as much of a non-factor. In fact, we hope for as much.

It is hard for us to parse what this new measure will actually mean for anyone at FAS. A committee may be convened on the basis of the legislation, but does not have to be. This committee’s review may change the document, but also may not; it may not even recommend an overhaul, as was the case in FAS’s recently concluded tenure policy review. And updates to the Free Speech Guidelines, drafted in 1990, will only matter if these guidelines are consulted regularly, if ever, by students and faculty.

The suggestion of a committee review is thin, but fine. Still, the UC’s time would be better spent disseminating our current guidelines more widely, or championing adherence to our current free speech standards across Harvard’s campus.

As is, Harvard’s Free Speech Guidelines offer much to be proud of. Proclamations like “we do not promote the censorship of noxious ideas” sit alongside the qualification that “there are obligations of civility and respect for others that underlie rational discourse.” Our “high priority on free speech” is forcefully articulated alongside an admission that “there is a need to weigh the right of freedom of expression against other rights.” When students and faculty must ultimately make “hard decisions” about what speakers to welcome to campus, we should favor free speech, but be thoughtful. In essence, it's a document that proclaims our highest ideals and encourages us to think.

We are extremely wary of any attempt to reduce or alter the freedoms that these guidelines promote. We worry that a committee such as the one the UC proposes, at least without understanding the true purpose of the legislation, would threaten to do just that.

The guidelines that we set for ourselves reflect not just what we are, but also what we aspire to be. And both the Free Speech Guidelines and this Board agree that we aspire to be a community dedicated to “discovering and disseminating ideas.” Students and faculty alike come to Harvard with countless different ambitions, but all of us — regardless of where we come from and where we hope to go from here — are committed to this communal project of critical inquiry.

Seeking the truth is difficult. It requires us to confront views that we believe just cannot be right, and that confrontation can be bitterly painful. But approaching those truths is what universities – and especially one dedicated to the pursuit of Veritas – are for. Turning ourselves and others away from claims we dislike, or even abhor, cuts off our scholarship and education from what can make each exceptional.

When we refuse to hear unpopular speakers out, we close our ears to the possibility that they might be correct. Even worse, we lose the chance to face views we know are wrong — to test our deepest commitments by grappling with challenges to them and, after hearing out our opposition, to develop iron-clad rebuttals. We learn not only what we believe to be right and wrong, but may more deeply understand why we do so. It is in facing these obstacles that we advance our beliefs from blind dogma to clear-eyed knowledge.

We must acknowledge that these recommendations permit events that may upset our community in the short term — but we believe that these should be given the go-ahead nonetheless. The writers of the Free Speech Guidelines carve out space to clarify that views that demonstrate “grave disrespect for the dignity of others” should not be given a campus audience. But ideas that fail to clear this bar and are merely “noxious” should, as the document argues, be heard out.

We are confident that Harvard students will be able to examine and critique wrongheaded ideas, and in doing so, sharpen their own. And of course, de-platforming controversial speakers at Harvard will, more likely than not, simply offer them a larger and newer platform amongst those who take glee in decrying the illiberalism of liberal arts institutions — only elevating these speaker’s profile and esteem in certain circles. In trying to protect Harvard students from menacing beliefs, we would merely foist them onto the rest of the nation.

For the sake of our mission as a university, free speech must be protected here — and really, if anyone bothered to read them, that is what the current guidelines already tell us to do.

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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Correction: Oct. 14, 2021

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Harvard's Tenure Track Review Committee did not recommend any changes. In fact, the committee recommended several changes, though overall, it upheld the tenure system as structurally sound.

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