‘Harvard Crimson’ Exposes Violations of Free Speech in Policies Identified by FIRE

By on January 30, 2012

FIRE’s annual report on campus speech codes has reached more and more college and university campuses since we released it a few weeks ago. Today The Harvard Crimson‘s Rebecca D. Robbins reports on Harvard’s poor, "red light" speech code rating in FIRE’s report. We explained Harvard’s rating in detail a couple of years ago, showing how Harvard’s policies violate its own promises of free expression:

Even Harvard’s Free Speech Guidelines [adopted by Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) in 1990], which extol the university’s unique status and its unique commitment to free speech, take with one hand as they give with the other. The Guidelines state that "Behavior evidently intended to dishonor such characteristics as race, gender, ethnic group, religious belief, or sexual orientation is contrary to the pursuit of inquiry and education. Such grave disrespect for the dignity of others can be punished under existing procedures because it violates a balance of rights on which the University is based." Harvard students wishing to express controversial opinions may well wonder what exactly constitutes "grave disrespect for the dignity of others." And they may, in fact, refrain from expressing those opinions to avoid potential punishment under this ridiculously vague proscription.

FIRE co-founder and Board of Directors Chairman Harvey Silverglate also said in Robbins’ article that Harvard has

such a vague and broad definition [of harassment] that it’s actually very easy to be convicted for behavior that would be protected in the real world. … You could say things in Harvard Square that you could be punished for saying in Harvard Yard.

Robbins got a pretty poor response out of FAS spokesperson Jeff Neal:

"Free speech is a fundamental value of the Harvard community—and the larger academic and educational enterprise—and we therefore take issue with any assertion to the contrary," Neal wrote in an email.

He added, "We have not reviewed and therefore cannot comment on the material on FIRE’s blog."

It is unclear whether Neal provided any evidence or argument to back up his claim that free speech is a "fundamental value of the Harvard community." Free speech wasn’t even considered when constructing Harvard’s Freshman Pledge last year. Instead it seems that, having not even read FIRE’s report, an official representative of the faculty of one of the world’s greatest universities simply takes issue with "any assertion to the contrary" of the faculty’s official position.

Sad to say, I am not surprised that an FAS representative would defend the free speech violations in Harvard’s policies, given its recent choice to dismiss an economics professor because of an article he published in India that was unrelated to his courses, without even contacting him or asking him to defend himself, on the false ground that his article was "incitement." Not even India is charging him with incitement, it seems; instead Subramanian Swamy is charged with violating India’s national speech code (specifically, Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code, on "[p]romoting enmity between different groups … and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony").

In fact, it looks like FAS makes it a habit not to read anything that contradicts its beliefs—our letter to FAS of January 5 on the matter of Professor Swamy, which asked for a response by January 19, has so far gone unanswered.

FAS claims that free speech is one of the university’s fundamental values, yet it has taken it upon itself to enforce India’s speech code. How unfortunate.

Schools: Harvard University Cases: Harvard University: Professor Fired for Newspaper Column