Harvard, India, Swamy, and the Right to Advocate for Radical Social Change

By August 1, 2011

Last week, FIRE wrote Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust after learning from The Harvard Crimson that the university was giving "serious attention" to student calls to fire economics professor Subramanian Swamy because of his expression in a column he wrote for a newspaper in India. The news of FIRE’s involvement has gone worldwide, appearing in the Times of IndiaDeccan Herald (India), Oman Tribune, North Korea Times (yes, that’s weird), and elsewhere, mainly via an Indo-Asian News Service article based on an update in the Crimson.

Swamy’s July 16 column, in response to a terrorist bombing a few days earlier in Mumbai, offered ideas on how to "negate the political goals of Islamic terrorism in India," including the ideas 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."

Those ideas seem to represent radical social and cultural change for India if they were implemented. And in the United States, at least, the right to advocate for radical change is a fundamental political and human right, codified in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

That means we protect the expression of people who advocate to remake the United States as a communist or socialist nation, for instance. After former Harvard professor Paul Sweezy was subpoenaed by the attorney general of New Hampshire for an investigation into his possible Marxist connections and belief in socialism and communism, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his First Amendment right to remain silent, in its landmark decision in Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U. S. 234 (1957). At the time, Sweezy wrote:

If the very first principle of the American constitutional form of government is political freedom—which I take to include freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association—then I do not see how it can be denied that these investigations are a grave danger to all that Americans have always claimed to cherish. No rights are genuine if a person, for exercising them, can be hauled up before some tribunal and forced under penalties of perjury and contempt to account for his ideas and conduct.

For its part, the Supreme Court wrote:

The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. … Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die. [Id. at 250.]

The principle of free speech also provides that government officials may not punish—or even investigate—people who advocate for illegal things, including the violent overthrow of the government itself, so long as they don’t actually start to try it. This includes advocating for legalization of illegal drugs or for legalization of carrying concealed weapons on college campuses, and it includes protesting against any law you can think of. In Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169 (1972), the Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment rights of a student chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) after the students were denied official recognition by their public college in Connecticut; the students had refused to tell the college whether or not they would engage in the kind of violence or nonviolent civil disobedience in which other chapters of the national SDS had engaged.

We tolerate the widest possible range of political, social, cultural, and religious views because, for one thing, we trust in the marketplace of ideas to eventually sort it all out. In Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 377 (1927), Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in his concurring opinion:

Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty. To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence. Only an emergency can justify repression. Such must be the rule if authority is to be reconciled with freedom.

I think the Swamy case is going to be an easy one for Harvard. The right answer for Harvard is to let Swamy alone. Yet, now that a Harvard dean is on record suggesting that Harvard is looking into, rather than protecting, Swamy’s expression—and The Atlantic is reporting that Swamy "may face removal" at Harvard—I think someone at Harvard should reassure the campus community (and the world) that it protects freedom of expression, as the university has long promised.

In fact, Harvard is already most of the way there. On Sunday, a Harvard spokesman provided a statement to Inside Higher Ed:

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.

That’s quite right. We will let you know of any further developments at Harvard.

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