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A few weeks after we started working on this column, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression released their yearly college free speech rankings, placing Harvard dead last out of 248 universities.
We share FIRE’s passion towards promoting free speech on college campuses — that’s why we decided to write this column. But, while FIRE’s report accurately captures many free speech problems on campus, it falls short in several areas.
FIRE’s absolutist approach to free speech-related incidents ignores the unique role of a university. Along with promoting the free exchange of ideas, universities must also ensure students’ well-being and a fulfilling academic experience, while maintaining quality research.
It’s a difficult balance to strike. Free speech is important, but it can’t always be the top priority.
FIRE’s report contains both specific incidents and a survey of student perceptions of the speech climate on campus. FIRE names seven incidents on Harvard’s campus that are classified as actualized violations of free speech.
We have concerns on the accuracy of FIRE’s depictions. For example, one incident involved divestment protestors interrupting a Kennedy School event. However, FIRE’s description is misleading, as the protest did not respond to the content of the talk, but appears to have leveraged the talk blindly as a public platform.
The others are more questionable. For example, FIRE criticizes the rescinding of Kyle Kashuv’s acceptance. But Kashuv’s enrollment was withdrawn after multiple instances of him using antisemitic and racist language in high school emerged online.
This is not an attack on free speech. Kashuv was not punished for sharing a controversial opinion or for making an unpopular point.
Kashuv was engaging in hate speech; his stated intention was that he had been “using callous and inflammatory language in an effort to be as extreme and shocking as possible.”
Even if Kashuv apologized later for his behavior, it’s entirely within the purview of admission departments to accept, deny, or rescind applications based on student behavior, especially when that behavior clearly denigrates students on campus. Universities fundamentally commit to educating their students, but this cannot be done if students do not feel comfortable engaging with their peers. To put it bluntly, universities have a legitimate interest in curbing especially hateful speech to promote healthy learning environments.
FIRE also objected to Harvard’s treatment of David D. Kane and Lorgia García Peña, claiming both scholars were unfairly terminated — although the extent to which University administration was involved with the professors’ departures is not entirely clear.
Kane received criticism starting in 2020 when students in his course discovered a college blog he had founded and moderated that posted racially charged language under a pseudonym that students alleged belonged to him. García Peña was denied tenure in 2019, a decision that generated much protest alleging the unfairness of the tenure process and institutional disrespect for ethnic studies.
Harvard’s exercise of discretion to fire or hire scholars is an important form of free speech in and of itself. While professors shouldn’t be censored for the findings of their research, they can be legitimately criticized for offensive statements external to their research — like it appears Kane was — or for the strength of their research — like it appears García Peña was.
Harvard may decide its scholarly associations in the same way that departments choose the best textbooks or teachers for their classes. To attack the University’s ability to curate its academics is an attack on academic freedom itself.
While we disagree with FIRE in specific instances, their fundamental diagnosis is not too far off. Free speech is under threat at Harvard.
FIRE’s student survey indicates this real problem: 94 percent of surveyed Harvard students said they have self-censored in conversations with their peers before; 88 percent have felt they could not express an opinion because of how others would respond; and 36 percent reported being more likely to self-censor now than when they started at Harvard.
These troubling statistics — not the flashy incidents that attract media attention — reveal the real free speech crisis at Harvard. The disinvitation of a speaker affects only a few students, if any at all. The much more pervasive issue resides in our social climate, in the fear of social retribution that can make students unwilling to speak up in class or share their opinions.
To say the least, this is a tragedy. At a place like Harvard, every conversation should be seen as an opportunity — not a liability. It’s unlikely we’ll ever find ourselves among a population as unique and varied as what we see here again. We should use this rare window of time to our advantage, maximizing what we learn from others.
This vision is achievable. All that’s needed is a subtle shift in the way we as students interact with one another. We should be willing to take a leap of faith in academic discussions or conversations with friends, and when a classmate takes a similar leap of faith, we should respect their courage and be willing to hear them out in turn.
Milo J. Clark ’24 is a Physics concentrator in Lowell House. Tyler S. Young ’26 lives in Leverett House. Their column, “Voices Unbound,” runs bi-weekly on Tuesdays.
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