Harvard Faculty Fires Economics Professor over Political Article Published in India

By on December 8, 2011

Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has effectively fired a controversial economics professor by canceling all of his courses due to an op-ed he published in India in the wake of the July 13 Mumbai terrorist bombing. Although Harvard’s administration had defended Professor Subramanian Swamy’s rights after intervention by FIRE, FAS blatantly and shamefully violated them in its meeting on Tuesday. Anyone reading the op-ed will have no trouble detecting why it was controversial, but this action by the Harvard faculty places speech and academic freedom in danger at Harvard.

On July 16, 2011, Swamy published an opinion piece in the Indian newspaper Daily News & Analysis in response to series of terrorist bombing in Mumbai on July 13 that killed 26 and injured 130 people. The column makes several suggestions about how to “negate the political goals of Islamic terrorism in India,” advocating that India “[e]nact a national law prohibiting conversion from Hinduism to any other religion,” “[r]emove the masjid [mosque] in Kashi Vishwanath temple and the 300 masjids at other temple sites,” and “declare India a Hindu Rashtra [nation] in which non-Hindus can vote only if they proudly acknowledge that their ancestors were Hindus.”

In response, a group of Harvard students began a petition against Swamy, demanding that Harvard “repudiate Swamy’s remarks and terminate his association with the University” on the ground that he is “a bigoted promoter of communalism in India” whose column “breaches the most basic standards of respect and tolerance.” The petition concludes that “Subramanian Swamy can have no place in the Harvard community.” Harvard Summer School Dean Donald H. Pfister reacted to the controversy by stating, “We will give this matter our serious attention.”

FIRE wrote President Drew Gilpin Faust on July 27, stating that “students certainly have the right to request that Harvard violate its own promises of free expression, but Harvard must not accede to such demands.” Indeed, we wrote, Harvard is obligated to uphold the promises of free speech contained in the “Free Speech Guidelines” adopted by FAS in 1990:

Curtailment of free speech undercuts the intellectual freedom that defines our purpose. It also deprives some individuals of the right to express unpopular views and others of the right to listen to unpopular views.

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.

Members of the University do not share similar political or philosophical views, nor would such agreement be desirable. They do share, however, a concern for the community defined in terms of free inquiry and dissemination of ideas. Thus, they share a commitment to policies that allow diverse opinions to flourish and to be heard.

Although President Faust did not respond directly to FIRE’s letter, Harvard released a statement around August 1 defending free speech in line with the promises made by FAS:

It is central to the mission of a university to protect free speech, including that of Dr. Swamy and of those who disagree with him. We are ultimately stronger as a university when we maintain our commitment to the most basic freedoms that enable the robust exchange of ideas.

It seemed that Harvard and FIRE were in agreement on this issue. After all, how would the situation presented here be any different in principle from the firing, say, of a communist professor for his beliefs, which might include the violent overthrow of the U.S. government? Both the U.S. and Harvard have had experience with what we now call McCarthyism, and few are eager to return to that.

Harvard’s admirable promises now stand in sharp and unflattering contrast to the action by FAS on Tuesday, led by Professor Diana C. Eck, as reported on Wednesday by The Harvard Crimson. (Disclosure: I once worked for Professor Eck as a nonresident tutor at Harvard’s Lowell House.) According to Crimson journalists Radhika Jain and Kevin J. Wu:

“Swamy’s op-ed clearly crosses the line by demonizing an entire religious community and calling for violence against their sacred places,” Eck said, adding that Harvard has a moral responsibility not to affiliate itself with anyone who expresses hatred towards a minority group. “There is a distinction between unpopular and unwelcome political views.”

Did Professor Eck really say, “There is a distinction between unpopular and unwelcome political views”? How exactly would one objectively define that difference?

This hypocritical action by FAS was made worse by Eck’s faulty rationale for punishing a professor who had expressed his views. The Crimson article adds that “[m]any faculty determined Swamy’s article was not a product of free speech-but of hate speech.” This assertion has no meaning from a rights perspective. There is no exception for “hate speech” either at Harvard (a private university bound by its own promises) or in the First Amendment, and there can be no agreement on what constitutes “hate speech” since it cannot be determined objectively.

Equally indefensible is the contention that Swamy’s article was an incitement to violence. Yet, this is exactly what the chair of the Philosophy Department, Sean D. Kelly, said, according to the Crimson:

“I was persuaded … that the views expressed in Dr. Swamy’s op-ed piece amounted to incitement of violence instead of protected political speech,” he wrote in an email to The Crimson.

Yet the op-ed comes nowhere near the careful definition of unprotected “incitement” announced by the Supreme Court in 1969. According to the Supreme Court, for speech to be considered “incitement,” it must be “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and [be] likely to incite or produce such action.” Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969). See also Hess v. Indiana, 414 U.S. 105 (1973) (holding that a protestor who shouted, “We’ll take the fucking street later” was not guilty of incitement because his “threat” “amounted to nothing more than advocacy of illegal action at some indefinite future time.”).

There are permissible reasons to cancel a professor’s courses, but the Crimson article suggests that FAS did not act on any of them. Instead, FAS broke its own promises. Harvard must reverse FAS’s violation of its moral obligation to uphold freedom of speech. It would be most preferable for FAS to remedy its own mistake. Failing that, higher-ups at Harvard must act to protect Harvard’s integrity. Harvard has already embarrassed itself far too much over free speech issues in recent years.

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