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Op Eds

Academic Freedom Prohibits Censorship and Punishment, Not Judgment

By Jeffrey S. Flier and Steven A. Pinker, Contributing Opinion Writers
Jeffrey S. Flier is the Higginson Professor of Physiology and Medicine. Steven A. Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology. Both are co-presidents of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard and co-authors of the open letter to the Harvard community.

The publication of the joint statement by Harvard Palestine solidarity groups, the open letter to the Harvard community signed by several hundred Harvard faculty and scholars, and the op-ed in The Crimson by our colleagues Melani Cammett, Ryan D. Enos, and Steven Levitsky offer us an opportunity to clarify our commitment to academic freedom.

The common saying that “ideas have consequences” can be abused to justify censoring or punishing people for expressing their opinions — abuse we vehemently oppose. We agree with Cammett, Enos, and Levitsky that the students who issued the joint statement have every right to express their opinions, free of censorship, threats, intimidation, punishment, or having their private information exposed.

If anyone at Harvard has breached the students’ academic freedom in any of these ways, we’d be the first to urge the University, and the new Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, to take a stand against it. (The two of us are among the six co-presidents of the council, as well as the six co-authors of the open letter, but the opinions expressed here are solely our own.)

At the same time, expressing ideas has the legitimate consequence that those ideas may be criticized, sometimes harshly. This would be true in any circumstance, but it is especially appropriate now.

By any standards, the joint statement is extraordinary. It blames the murder of more than a thousand civilians, including children and the elderly, “entirely” on the victims’ own country’s government. In doing so, it shows ignorance of the widely accepted principle that noncombatants may not be targeted in war, regardless of one’s opinion of the righteousness of the cause. And it simplistically blames a tragic situation with a deep and complex history on a single villain, absolving all other parties: from the men who pulled the triggers, raped the women, and set houses on fire with families in them, to the ideology and tactics of Hamas, the role of Egypt in the blockade of Gaza, and Iran’s support in training and arming Hamas militants.

It is entirely legitimate under the principles of free speech to push back hard against the content of this statement. Perhaps, as Cammett, Enos, and Levitsky suggest, some of the signatories thought they were merely advocating “a deeper discussion of the roots of Israeli-Palestinian violence.” But if so, they should recognize that blaming one party for all that occurred is a poor way to begin such a discussion. Cammett, Enos, and Levitsky propose recognizing “the context of decades of dehumanizing occupation,” but this context cannot possibly excuse the perpetrators of atrocious war crimes.

It’s all the more legitimate to rebut this statement vociferously given the damage it has done to Harvard and its students. When 34 student organizations, many using “Harvard” in their names, sign onto an inflammatory public statement, it will inevitably taint the entire University (even after some have withdrawn their signatures).

We have seen many headlines like “Harvard’s Horror: The statement from student groups blaming Israel for the Hamas attacks will further erode the university’s stature, and deservedly so.” Worse, many of the Harvard students who belong to these clubs found themselves pinned to a statement that they themselves never approved and indeed found abhorrent.

Under these circumstances, it is completely appropriate for members of the community to articulate their beliefs by distancing themselves from this statement in the strongest of terms. Doing so is not “bullying” — though that can happen and must be criticized when it occurs — but rather is treating the students as full members of an intellectual community who, like all others, are responsible for the content of their public statements.

Yes, the principle of academic freedom gives all members of our community the right to express their opinions without censorship, intimidation, or punishment. It also gives other members of the community the right to rebut those opinions and to draw inferences about the judgment of those expressing them. We look forward to the day when issues such as this, despite being contentious and emotional, are the subject of respectful and productive engagement among members of the Harvard community.

Jeffrey S. Flier is the Higginson Professor of Physiology and Medicine. Steven A. Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology. Both are co-presidents of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard and co-authors of the open letter to the Harvard community.

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