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In today’s political climate, the term “free speech” sometimes becomes an unscrupulous means to sneak unjustified or absurd arguments into otherwise meaningful discourse; a debater’s trojan horse built on a buzzword. From the panic over Dr. Seuss and his pulled books to the Mr. Potato debacle, concerns over “cancel culture” and “woke” intrusions on speech have become a staple of our three-minute long news cycles and never-ending culture wars.
Yet when the controversies reach academia, or when new players enter the field, it’s worthwhile to inspect and reaffirm our stance.
This board has long defended academic freedom. A professor has a right to critically investigate any topic of their choosing without institutional pressure of any kind — so long as their work adheres to the highest academic and ethical standards. The ability to do academic work that is counter to current societal forces is an essential and defining feature of academia and democracy, one that must be protected fiercely. This imperative can involve a difficult balancing act with the harms caused by certain uses of these freedoms — especially when conclusions lack strong factual or argumentative support. Yet we should always prioritize, or if necessary, even err on the side of, protecting free speech and academic freedom.
The newly-announced Academic Freedom Alliance seems like a promising way to protect the latter principle. A nonpartisan non-profit organization, the AFA aims to protect its member professors from any institutional encroachment on academic freedoms. By doing so, it could help secure an environment tolerant of rigorous but controversial research, furthering a noble and fundamental academic goal. For that alone, we give the eighteen Harvard faculty who joined AFA as founding members a vote of confidence at the outset.
But our support is no blank check.
Exactly who the AFA is meant to protect professors from is not entirely clear. The language of their mission statement specifically mentions defending members from suppression of academic freedom stemming from “institutions or officials”, and we hope they honor this commitment. Institutions and university officials often wield an ultimate, unilateral and opaque decision-making power, and they deserve the scrutiny of the AFA. When it comes to academics standing up to their institutional employer, our support for the group is firm.
We would, however, be truly disappointed to see the energy, brainpower, legal, and financial support of this group operate in opposition to the organizing of student or activist groups at universities instead. On this front, we find reason to be wary: Founding AFA member and Harvard Psychology professor Stephen A. Pinker has framed “noisy group[s] of activists” as the group’s target, arguing that university officials acquiesce to their demands because they “just don’t want trouble.”
The sad fact of the matter is that activists don’t run our school. Contrary to Professor Pinker’s belief, student groups are almost never the decision-makers at our institution, as evidenced by our lack of a multicultural center, our continued investment in fossil fuels, or many other instances in which administrators were deaf to students’ calls. Campus organizations like Divest Harvard might get to drive the news cycle every now and then, but they hardly set the agenda. Directing substantial resources at students voicing their concerns would not only prove unproductive but would undermine the very principle of free speech that AFA is created to uphold.
Targeting what might at worst be politically overzealous students presents an internal coherence issue. If AFA is truly committed to upholding free speech, it must do so even when it proves inconvenient. Activist critics of academia can be uncomfortable for professors, but their perspective isn’t any less worthy of protection — even if they sometimes voice opinions critical of AFA affiliates themselves. The AFA cannot quash student voices on its quest to contribute to a free academic environment.
The diverse composition of this group speaks to its faithfulness towards academic freedom, hopefully, a sign that Professor Pinker’s approach is unlikely to guide the group. The organization’s member professors are from all across the country, ideological spectrum, academic fields, and walks of life — crucial to the success of their mission — and thus at this early stage, we find enough reasons to support AFA.
But the final verdict will unfold as AFA begins its work; much of this organization’s story is still unwritten, its major battles unfought. The path they follow is theirs to chart, their errors theirs to make. We are optimistically curious to see where this group goes — who they choose to support and defend and for what reasons. They have our confidence, even if just for now.
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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