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A group of Harvard Law School faculty released a statement calling for greater protections of student speech amid conversations around academic freedom and campus protest.
A group of Harvard Law School faculty released a statement calling for greater protections of student speech amid conversations around academic freedom and campus protest. By Zadoc I.N. Gee
By S. Mac Healey and Saketh Sundar, Crimson Staff Writers

Updated April 21, 2024, at 7:40 p.m.

More than 30 Harvard Law School faculty signed onto a statement affirming their “commitment to protecting student speech” after some HLS student groups have been investigated for hosting gatherings in student spaces.

The statement called for the protection of student speech from “unreasonably expansive and historically unfounded interpretations of protest guidelines,” referring to “discriminatory enforcement of rules and viewpoint discrimination” from the administration. The letter was published Monday in the Harvard Law Record, an independent student newspaper at HLS.

HLS spokesperson Jeff Neal declined to comment for this article.

The Monday statement was part of a larger package addressed to the HLS administration and the University’s leadership. The presidents of HLS’s American Constitutional Society and the Federalist Society also sent a joint letter to interim HLS Dean John C.P. Goldberg.

Harvard Law professor Nikolas Bowie then issued a companion letter contextualizing the faculty statement and joint letter.

The package comes at a time when Harvard Law professors have publicly debated academic freedom and students have faced public retribution for voicing their opinions.

In emails to The Crimson, several HLS professors cited Bowie as one of the main forces behind the faculty letter.

In his companion letter, Bowie pointed to recent investigations and disciplinary actions HLS administrators have taken against student groups participating in campus activism. Some have gathered in the Caspersen Student Center lounge — a room historically used for student organizing, including against Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination and the University’s investment in fossil fuels, according to Bowie.

Some HLS affiliates have dubbed the room “Belinda Hall” in honor of Belinda Sutton, who was enslaved by a prominent Massachusetts family whose donation in 1781 funded the Law School’s first professorship.

But unlike past student protests, Bowie wrote in his open letter, “recent invocations of Palestine have inspired a novel clampdown by the law school that is doing little to stop the protests but much to threaten Belinda’s character as a space for all students.”

Bowie wrote that University administrators have recently accused student organizers of violating a 1970 Harvard policy that prohibits “interference with members of the University in performance of their normal duties and activities.”

“I have now seen graceless attempts at suppressing students in Belinda for the first time because they are demanding an end to a genocide against Palestinians,” he wrote.

In particular, Bowie wrote about a February HLS’s Women’s Law Association event, during which students wrote Valentine’s Day cards to residents of a memory care center. Later, administrators in the dean of students’ office contacted organizers of the event because they “wanted to interrogate whomever was responsible.”

“Without realizing it, the card writers had joined a growing number of students who law school administrators have recently begun investigating, warning, or even threatening with formal discipline for gathering in Belinda Hall,” he wrote.

Bowie added that members of HLS’s Women’s Law Association told him they felt they received “unwarranted prosecution by the law school” for their event that pro-Palestinian student organizers later modeled their own after. After the second, pro-Palestine event was disrupted by HLS administration, the WLA was retroactively questioned for their “unchallenged” event.

“Rather than concede the inconsistency, law school administrators simply expanded their dragnet to intimidate the WLA and everyone else from using Belinda for gathering, too,” Bowie wrote. “At the same time, it’s no secret to them, me, or anyone else why they’re being investigated: Palestine.”

The joint letter from the HLS Federalist Society President Benjamin Pontz and American Constitutional Society President Morgan Sperry — which was sent several weeks prior to Bowie’s letter — acknowledged that they were writing as “the leaders of two organizations that have done little together over the past three years” to express their “shared belief that freedom of expression must lie at the core of Harvard Law School’s pursuit of truth and justice.”

The HLS Federalist Society describes itself as a “group of conservative and libertarian law students” that seeks to “foster balanced and open debate about the fundamental principles of individual freedom, limited government, and judicial restraint.” The American Constitution Society is a student organization that “promotes progressive legal change” in order to “realize economic and social justice and secure democratic freedoms,” according to their website.

“The law school should not use student conduct policies to protect law students from hearing what their peers want to see and do in the world,” Pontz and Sperry wrote in the joint letter.

“And any law school conduct policies that operate in service of any value other than protecting truth-seeking, open debate, academic freedom, and civic engagement are inappropriate,” they added.

—Staff writer S. Mac Healey can be reached at Follow him on X @MacHealey.

—Staff writer Saketh Sundar can be reached at Follow him on X @saketh_sundar.

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