Attorney Harvey Silverglate fights with FIRE

By on February 1, 2009

After fighting Harvard University for years over its campus speech policies, 66-year-old civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate is ready to beard the lion in its den to force change at the nation’s most influential university.

Silverglate will seek a spot on the school’s powerful 30-member board of overseers, one of its two governing bodies. Its members are elected by the school’s alumni.

"I hope to make Harvard a better place," said Silverglate, a Harvard Law School grad, who needs 219 signatures from Harvard degree-holders to appear on the ballot. "It saddens me that Harvard persists in having, and enforcing, its speech codes, where students get in trouble for telling a joke or engaging in satire or parody deemed offensive to some ethnic, religious, racial or other group."

Defending Harvard’s record of free speech was spokesman John Longbrake, who told the Herald:

"Free speech is uniquely important to us because we are a community committed to reason and rational discourse. We believe free interchange of ideas is vital for our primary function of discovering and disseminating ideas through research, teaching and learning.

"We believe that our policies reflect this commitment and protect free speech at Harvard," he said.

Silverglate is seeking the slot just as the free-speech group he co-founded, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, has its 10th birthday. FIRE has sent a letter to President Obama asking for his help in the fight against speech codes.

FIRE is devoted to fighting the codes – rules that limit what students can say on U.S. campuses.

Through publicity campaigns and litigation, FIRE has changed or ended 69 unconstitutional or otherwise repressive policies affecting nearly 1.5 million students, Silverglate said, making it a powerful force in academia.

"Our major weapon remains our ability to bring massive publicity to universities that abuse their students and faculties, to alert alumni and to bring shame down upon them," said Silverglate.

Big change at Harvard could mean a trickle-down effect to other universities, Silverglate said. He said he faces an uphill battle, but he hopes to cause Crimson administrators to see a little red.

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Schools: Harvard University