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A Year of Speech About Speech

By Emily N. Dial
By The Crimson Editorial Board
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.

You’ve probably seen — in think pieces and congressional hearings, social media posts and interviews — that Harvard has a free speech problem.

On one hand, this panic is a good thing. Free speech and open inquiry are the heart of a healthy university, and they face real, serious problems at Harvard that will not be solved without buy-in from faculty and students.

On the other, buy-in alone doesn’t suffice. When Harvard’s defenders of free speech advocate for conceptions of free speech that are half-formed or inconsistent, they waste the will to make progress on prescriptions unfit to solve the problem — or that make it worse.

It was the crises of the past year that made free speech a hot topic, laying bare long-standing tensions over its place at Harvard.

In the last year, administrators responded to an international geopolitical crisis with statements that satisfied nobody; a former University president delivered testimony to a Congress intent on her public humiliation; and pro-Palestinian protesters — accused of antisemitism and subjected to harsh online harassment — tested the limits of Harvard’s time, place, and manner restrictions on campus demonstrations.

Throughout this semester and last we have gathered as an Editorial Board to make sense of these controversies in real time, to debate and disagree openly about issues of fundamental importance to many of us.

Since Oct. 7, few on each side of the issue have engaged in discussion with those on the other. On our Board, which counts among its number some of Harvard’s most prominent pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel students, it happens three times a week.

We live the debates about free speech, academic freedom, and open discourse prosecuted in the pages of the New York Times, the feeds of social media, and the halls of Congress. Here’s what we’ve learned from a year defined by contests over free speech — and how what you’d typically read about it gets it wrong.

Institutional Neutrality, Now

Let’s start at the beginning, the first misstep that snowballed into the University’s leadership crisis.

On Oct. 7, the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee penned a statement co-signed by 33 other student organizations holding Israel “entirely responsible” for the massacre.

Thus began the storm. Prominent Harvard affiliates like former University President Lawrence H. Summers and Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) condemned the PSC’s statement, launching a tidal wave of outrage and online harassment.

Maybe — just maybe — that could have been the end. Harvard’s response ensured it would not be.

Days after the massacre and the PSC statement, the University released the first of what would become a barrage of mealy-mouthed public pronouncements. For some they were too late; for others they were unnecessary. For some they were too forceful; for others, too message-tested. Statement after statement hit our inboxes leaving no one better off as a result.

The root of the problem isn’t the stance that the University staked out (though it had its flaws) — it’s that Harvard had created the expectation that it would take an official position at all.

These statements didn’t make students safer. They didn’t quell campus tensions. They obviously didn’t advance a peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. So what are official University proclamations on social and political issues good for? We’ve realized the answer is next to nothing.

In fact, they do harm. As a matter of principle, it’s improper for institutions dedicated to open inquiry to declare an institutional orthodoxy on controversial issues; as a practical matter, it’s immensely destabilizing.

For years, this instability remained hidden. The University made statements about George Floyd’s murder, Jan. 6, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — all causes unlikely to occasion outrage on a considerably liberal campus.

With Oct. 7, the unsustainability of that approach became apparent. For the first time in recent memory, Harvard faced pressure to make statements on an issue with significant campus constituencies on either side. Yes, the University bungled the statements it did make, but it’s unlikely that any statement could have placated two groups with positions so incompatible.

Before the next divisive campus issue comes around, Harvard needs to end the expectation that it will make public statements that hit exactly the right note on social and political issues.

A commitment to institutional neutrality cannot, however, become an excuse for its conduct in areas where it can never be neutral. When it comes to the endowment, the choice to invest in fossil fuels or weapons manufacturers is just that — a choice, made on the basis of subjective, non-neutral judgments.

Harassment Goes Digital

Official statements and sanctions have loomed large in conversations about free speech at Harvard, but at least as often, the threat has come from personal, private action.

On Oct. 11, a truck adorned with a glowing billboard paraded the names and faces of students — our classmates — allegedly associated with organizations that co-signed the PSC statement, labeling them “Harvard’s leading antisemites.” Many of those students were harassed online. Others had the “doxxing truck” visit their hometown. Some received death threats.

While students entrusted to their care and cultivation endured some of the worst, most terrifying days of their life, several of Harvard’s most prominent faculty members piled on.

On Oct. 9, former University President Lawrence H. Summers released a string of posts on X blasting the student groups affiliated with the PSC statement and the University for failing to condemn it. Even after he disavowed the attacks on students in an Oct. 11 post, Summers continued, for weeks, to lambast the University for its failures to decisively reject antisemitism, feeding the outrage that was causing students such anguish.

For some, perhaps this met the standard for effective open inquiry. When one is faced with a disagreeable view, one should voice that disagreement. Speech meets counterspeech.

Maybe that model worked before the internet placed Harvard before the watchful eyes of the world, allowing local controversies to become global outrage. Maybe it still works, when an issue is unlikely to elicit such outrage.

But when Harvard is mired in controversy and internet-enabled bullying and harassment rage, it’s clear that publicly airing grievances throws gasoline on the fire, drawing outside criticism that intimidates would-be speakers and toxifies campus discourse.

High-profile affiliates — professors, in particular — must know better. When you take on the pastoral role of professor, caring for students and guiding them to be better is part of the job description.

Professors should treat objectionable speech as an opportunity to teach and learn. When they take to X instead, they don’t just inflict pain on their students — they waste a valuable opportunity to correct the half-baked ideas often contained in the speech they oppose. Instead, we should all seek opportunities to engage in ways that don’t invite outside agitators in: Send private letters, seek out in-person conversations, convene debates, teach-ins, and meetings.

A healthy speech environment involves counterspeech, but certain modes of counterspeech can weaken the University’s speech culture. By being more mindful of our online presence — and bringing speech offline wherever possible — we can engage in counterspeech without attracting outside agitators.

Half-Truths and Ad Hominems

If your only engagement with Harvard in the past year had been cable news reports and congressional press releases, you might be justified in believing that Harvard is a hotbed of deep seated antisemitism.

If you spent the last year living on campus, that claim is harder to take at face value.

Like all communities, Harvard has its share of problems. There’s no denying that hate has reared its ugly head on our campus this semester. The causes range from ignorance and thoughtlessness to a dearth of empathy, and it’s entirely possible that a handful of students here really are antisemitic.

But our campus climate should not be measured by its worst acts. The overwhelming majority of our classmates are not antisemitic, even if we take issue with the inflammatory and insensitive rhetoric they have at times employed. Likewise, the encampment was not especially disruptive or remotely dangerous, even if it may have involved objectionable conduct or speech.

This lesson generalizes beyond the pro-Palestinian protesters. In an environment where any claim about Harvard can go viral in a matter of minutes, we must be able to disagree without immediately resorting to ad hominem attacks that cast our fellow students in the worst light.

Those who seek to criticize the University itself should abide by a similar standard.

In recent months, many prominent Harvard affiliates have castigated the institution’s diversity, equity, and inclusion offices as a lead threat to free speech on campus.

That view rests on a fundamental misconception about the role of DEI: There is no DEI behemoth governing Harvard from the shadows. Harvard’s DEI offices mostly provide concrete services, organizing events and coordinating resources to support students facing difficulties related in some way to their identity.

Certainly, there is no truth to the narrative that these low-level administrators hand-picked former University President Claudine Gay — who got the job over hundreds of other candidates, including many talented people of color — as a “DEI hire.”

This is not to say that the critics don’t have a point. Many use the term DEI to denote a culture of sensitivity and censoriousness that does, in some measure, exist. But using the term carelessly does nobody a service, spreading misinformation about how Harvard operates while directing unearned ire at the DEI administrators working hard to do work valuable to many students.

The Future of Free Speech

The more it’s discussed, it feels, the less “free speech” means. Groups and individuals at Harvard and beyond deploy it for a host of purposes and with a host of intended meanings. In this cacophonous discourse, it can be hard to tell what’s real and what’s just noise.

Viewed together, though, the questions about free speech raised in the course of the last year offer an indication of how Harvard might proceed: by recommitting to collective responsibility for the speech environment that defines the teaching and learning on this campus.

We create the culture within which Harvard feels compelled to make statements on social and political issues; professors feel compelled to lambast their students to an audience of millions; and students on one side feel compelled to malign the character and intentions of the students on the other. No matter what policies change at Harvard, until we change that culture, free speech will remain in peril.

So listen closely to what fellow members of the University community say. Receive it with patience and kindness — in good faith. Consider where, when, and how to respond. And be cautious of giving faraway observers the opportunity to misconstrue what happens here.

Free speech challenges us. It demands we tolerate that which we hate, encounter that which we fear. But if this Editorial Board emerges from a year of arguing about free speech sure of anything, it’s this: Fickle as free speech may be, we can’t have a university any other way.

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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