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Harvard Law School administrators told students phone banking for a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza to leave the Caspersen Student Center lounge Wednesday, according to a video reviewed by The Crimson and students in attendance, sparking free speech concerns among students.
Participants said a group of administrators — which included Stephen L. Ball, dean of students; Monica E. Monroe, assistant dean for community engagement, equity, and belonging; and Jessica L. Soban ’02, dean of student services — told the students they were violating school policy by phone banking in the Caspersen lounge and soliciting other students to join them.
The incident took place shortly after Ball and Monroe sent an email Wednesday to students reminding them of University free speech and non-discrimination policies, as well as HLS-specific guidelines on protesting and personal conduct. The email said the school’s shared spaces were meant to be “used for personal or small group study and conversation that respect the rights of others to use the space.”
The group of students, not affiliated with any organization, had been phone banking in the lounge — which some call “Belinda Hall” in honor of a person enslaved by the Royall family, who were prominent Law School donors — for more than two weeks without any previous incidents with administrators, they said.
Lisa Fanning, a third-year law student in attendance, said administrators who approached them did not explain to them what policies they had violated.
“They came to us and they said that what we were doing was actually in violation of the student handbook and that they had sent out an email earlier today that clarified this policy that we couldn’t be doing this in a student lounge,” Fanning said. “‘Doing this’ is what they kept saying. They said ‘this’ is not allowed in the student lounge.”
Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote in an emailed statement that the school, “in keeping with its procedures, reminded a group of students gathered in the WCC about the school’s policies regarding time, place, and manner.” He wrote that this policy and others were shared with all HLS students earlier that day.
“The students were welcomed to partner with a recognized HLS student organization, each of which may reserve a table in the appropriate location,” Neal added.
Fanning said that after administrators told her flyers were acceptable but soliciting other students was not, she held up a flyer that directed passersby to ask her about it. However, she said, when the group of administrators returned, they told her she would be referred to the Administrative Board for potential disciplinary action.
Neal did not confirm if students had been referred to the Administrative Board.
Wednesday’s encounter comes amid national controversy surrounding free speech and activism related to the Israel-Hamas war at Harvard and other college campuses. Students and administrators alike have faced intense backlash from alumni, donors, and affiliates across the political spectrum.
Responding to the incident, Law Students for a Free Palestine, an organization of students from 38 law schools across the country, released a statement that alleged Harvard students had been “uniquely targeted by repression.”
According to the statement, handing out flyers and displaying posters are protected in the HLS Handbook of Academic Policies.
“Picketing in an orderly way or distributing literature outside the meeting is acceptable unless it impedes access to the meeting,” per a section of the school’s handbook cited in Ball and Monroe’s Wednesday email.
The group also expressed concern about a potential response from the administration to a silent vigil planned for Thursday in the Law School’s Wasserstein Hall.
“Harvard Law’s administration is suppressing every form of student speech — to the point that we think the administration will still crack down on this silent vigil,” the group wrote in the statement.
Neal did not comment on allegations that the school had suppressed free speech.
Students have had a history of using the lounge for activism, Fanning said, but “administrators have never reacted in the way that they did today.”
“Harvard Law School is taking the approach of free speech for students except for those students that want to speak about Palestine,” she added.
Allie R. Ryave, a second-year law student in attendance, said she was disheartened by the HLS administration’s actions, which she described as an attempt to silence her and others.
“I feel frustrated that I came to this school because I care about what happens in the world and I want to be a part of making it better, and every time I feel like I tried to do that here, there’s some unreasonable pushback,” she said.
—Staff writer Jo B. Lemann can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on X @Jo_Lemann.
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