FIRE Letter to Harvard President Drew Faust

By June 9, 2008

June 9, 2008

President Drew Gilpin Faust
Office of the President
Harvard University
Massachusetts Hall
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (617-495-8550)

Dear President Faust:

As you can see from our list of Directors and Board of Advisors, FIRE unites leaders in the fields of civil rights and civil liberties, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, freedom of religion, due process, freedom of speech, and academic freedom on America’s college campuses. Our website, www.thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity and activities.

FIRE is concerned about the threat to freedom of expression posed by Adams House’s recent threat to cancel a scheduled party due to the event’s name, as well as the threat posed by a Harvard attorney’s response to the concerns we have expressed.

We first expressed our concerns in a May 8, 2008, letter to Adams House Resident Dean Sharon Howell (enclosed) in which I detailed the contradiction between Dean Howell’s threat to cancel the party and Harvard’s stated commitment to freedom of expression. We explained that threatening to cancel the party proposed by the Latino Men’s Collective and Fuerza Latina, two Harvard student groups, simply because of the name used to publicize the event (“Barely Legal”), violates not only the moral imperatives of the First Amendment, but also Harvard’s own binding promises of freedom of expression.

We are in receipt of Associate Attorney Bradley E. Abruzzi’s response of May 30, 2008 (enclosed). Abruzzi argues that the decision was “appropriate and in full accord with Harvard’s free speech policy and First Amendment principles” because use of Adams House facilities is “purely discretionary” and any event thus allowed “necessarily carries an endorsement of the event by the House.” Abruzzi also argues that the House administration’s requirement that the party name be changed did not constitute “punitive action” because “[n]either Adams

House nor the College undertook to prevent the student groups from following through with the party, which the groups were free to hold elsewhere.”

Abruzzi’s response is inadequate for several reasons.

First, Abruzzi’s contention that allowing the party to proceed at Adams House would somehow constitute an “endorsement” of the event by the House fundamentally misconstrues the essential role of free expression in a modern liberal education. As the United States Supreme Court has eloquently stated, the American university occupies a unique and hallowed position in our society as “peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas,’” a locus of intellectual exchange where “the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital.” Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972). Given this proud distinction, it is a mistake to maintain, as Abruzzi does, that the mere facilitation of protected expression by Harvard is the equivalent of its endorsement. Indeed, Abruzzi’s contention is plainly untenable: Does anyone really believe that Harvard fully endorses all of the diverse speech accommodated in its classrooms, halls, and residences, simply by providing the space in which this wide range of expression occurs? Of course not. Such an endorsement is not only impossible, but it is also incompatible with the university’s mission as a true marketplace of ideas.

Further, the threat to cancel the party only after it was advertised under the name “Barely Legal” illustrates an indefensible double standard at work. The Harvard Crimson reports that Adams House has hosted such events as “Erotica Night” and “S&M bingo.” Even if one sees a sexual connotation in “Barely Legal,” there is no real difference in these themes. The laughably mild idea “so crazy it should be illegal”-as a party organizer described the point of the “Barely Legal” party’s name-is still less controversial. While policing the themes of student parties directly contradicts Harvard’s promises of free expression, doing so in an inconsistent and arbitrary manner adds insult to injury.

Finally, Abruzzi outlines several grounds for denying student requests for use of Adams House facilities, including “security, potential disruption, and burden on staff.” But Abruzzi fails to provide any indication whatsoever that the proposed party would have precipitated any of these problems. To the contrary, the student leadership of both groups publicly stated that they meant no offense by the party’s name and that they in no way intended to glorify or encourage illegal activity. Such a clarification should have provided more than enough reassurance to Adams House administrators; the fact that it did not indicates a plain lack of common sense on their part. That Dean Howell felt compelled to tell The Harvard Crimson that the student groups “should have been more thoughtful considering the context” is an ominous sign for Adams House residents and indeed for all Harvard students, a depressing signal that students had best think twice before engaging in protected speech on campus. There can be little doubt that warnings like Howell’s serve only to chill protected expression at Harvard.

Again, FIRE must remind Harvard that censoring students for engaging in clearly protected expression-no matter how offensive or inappropriate to some-violates Harvard’s guarantees of free speech on campus. As you no doubt are aware, Harvard’s “Free Speech Guidelines” unequivocally state:

Free interchange of ideas is vital for our primary function of discovering and disseminating ideas through research, teaching, and learning… Because no other community defines itself so much in terms of knowledge, few others place such a high priority on freedom of speech. As a community, we take certain risks by assigning such a high priority to free speech. We assume that the long-term benefits to our community will outweigh the short-term unpleasant effects of sometimes-noxious views. Because we are a community united by a commitment to rational processes, we do not permit censorship of noxious ideas. We are committed to maintaining a climate in which reason and speech provide the correct response to a disagreeable idea.

To be clear: under Harvard’s guidelines, forcing student groups to alter an “offensive” party name or risk the party’s cancellation cannot be justified.

In keeping with the principles of the First Amendment and Harvard’s own binding promises of freedom of expression, FIRE must again request that Harvard reaffirm its commitment to ensuring that students enjoy the robust freedoms to which they are morally and legally entitled.

We ask for a response to this letter by June 30, 2008.

Sincerely,

Adam Kissel ’94
Director, Individual Rights Defense Program
Adams House Resident, 1991-94

cc:

Evelynn M. Hammonds, Dean of Harvard College
Sharon Howell, Adams House Resident Dean
Judith and Sean Palfrey, Adams House Masters
Sophia Chaknis, Adams House Administrator
Otto Coontz, Assistant to the Resident Dean
Jessica D. Acosta, President, Fuerza Latina
Xavier Del Rosario, President, Latino Men’s Collective

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Schools: Harvard University Cases: Harvard University: Administration Threatened to Cancel ‘Barely Legal’ Party Due to Event’s Name