Harvard Law: A Parody of Freedom

By March 27, 2006

Every year, Harvard Law School holds a parody show, called “the Parody,” that lampoons professors, students, and various issues at Harvard Law School. Last year, I blogged about the controversy surrounding the Parody’s satirical song about Professor Lawrence Tribe (sample lyric: “He’s Jesus Christ/He’s Larry Tribe/Not just Harvard’s best professor/But the smartest man alive…”). Well, this year, according to an article in the Harvard Law Record newspaper, controversy once again surrounds the Parody. Assuming this article is not itself a parody (once you read it, you’ll know why I say this), it appears that the big problem this time is “complaints from a number of students who where upset about the manner in which they were depicted in the Parody.” And of course, a big part of these hurt feelings is said to be the result of the Parody’s racism and/or sexism.  

Well, gee whiz. Who would have thought that parodying someone might hurt his or her feelings, or that controversial topics might come up in a parody? Remember, these are law students at what is (presumably) one of our nation’s, nay, the world’s, finest law schools. Yet apparently it takes a forum moderated by luminary professor Charles Ogletree to calm the uproar over the Parody’s content. The article simply has to be read to be believed. For example, take this excerpt:

The meeting began with a short statement read by the director of the Parody, Justin Shanes, which laid out the process of writing the Parody. Shanes hoped, he said, to increase the transparency of the process. In particular, he stated that the script of the Parody is vetted by numerous people and objectionable material is removed throughout the process; this year, changes were made even the week of the performance. He also offered an apology to all those who were offended, saying it was nobody’s intention to hurt those parodied.

This is either a lie, or this year’s Parody was the worst parody in history. If Harvard Law students were trying to craft something that was not “objectionable,” “offensive,” or “hurtful” to anybody at all, they weren’t working on a parody, they were working on a children’s book. Parody and satire are intended to bite—that is what lends them their effectiveness. Take, for instance, Swift’s A Modest Proposal, which suggested that Irish children should be used for food. Or take the more recent example of Hustler v. Falwell, where Hustler magazine ran a fake advertisement asserting that Jerry Falwell lost his virginity in an incestuous encounter in an outhouse.   The article goes on:

Prof. Ogletree posed a number of broad questions to the room at large, and the two-hour meeting consisted largely of attendees responding. Debate centered around the use of stereotypes, particularly racial ones in the show, and ways to improve it in the future. Two suggestions came up repeatedly: prohibiting the portrayal of actual students (and perhaps professors) altogether and implementing an opt-in/opt-out system whereby students could choose to be parodied or not.

A parody with an opt-out clause? Are they serious? And if they could not parody students or professors, why exactly would they choose to have a parody? These suggestions are ludicrous, of course, but they are exactly the kind of ludicrous one expects from the modern campus. I feel obliged to continue with a few more excerpts:

Members of the Parody emphasized that the show had a diverse cast and crew, and that they were careful to take every cast member’s opinions into account. To a proposal to have various affinity groups on campus vet the script, a Parody cast member responded that many of their members did belong to those affinity groups.

This is a variation of the old “but I have (blank) friends, so I can’t be (racist/homophobic/sexist/etc.)” refrain. It is sad that the Parody folks felt that they had to stoop to this level.

“Race and community [are] not something you can intellectualize,” said one 4th-year joint degree student, who had been distressed to hear that one woman of his acquaintance had told him she was going to “leave the Harvard community” as a result of the Parody.

American businessmen, these are your future lawyers. You might want to rethink paying them $800 an hour.

Objections to the Parody went beyond racial stereotypes. Some criticized jokes about physical appearance and details about students’ romantic lives. “I talk about gender a lot and I have big breasts,” stated a 1L in attendance, “does that mean I’m going to be publicly humiliated?”

There’s nothing I can say about that statement that isn’t already obvious, so I won’t bother.

In one scene, a professor walked through a classroom of students asking questions, stopping to put his hand on one student’s shoulder and asking, “Did you get that?” An attendee at the meeting expressed dismay that a white man would put his hand on a black woman’s shoulder and say those words, implying that she wasn’t qualified to be in the class.

It does?

Parody members clarified that this had never been their intent. The professor character had put his hand on a different student’s shoulder each night; when the potential implications of the scene as played out above were pointed out to the Parody cast, they made sure he did not address the line to her in future performances.

Phew, that’s a relief. This really is the most sensitive parody ever performed. Not sensitive enough, though. After all, it did make fun of some people:

Applause, seldom universal, rang out throughout the evening in support of various points. Only one speaker elicited a strong negative reaction from the crowd. A Ph.D. student expressed disgust at the concept of parodying real people, posing the question, “Why not make fun of yourselves?”

Yes, this is in fact a Harvard Ph.D. student. A Harvard Ph.D. student who wonders why a parody would parody real people. Think about that, if you don’t mind losing some sleep tonight.   It appears that the Parody got the message from all this “discussion,” though. The message? “Shut up.”

After the meeting, the Parody team issued the following statement, “To the extent that certain individuals and groups were offended, and to the extent that we failed in our mission to put on a show that is funny, satirical and enjoyable for everyone, we are sorry. … The Parody plans to take consideration of all suggestions in their re-examination of the Parody going forward, and plans to address any concerns brought up by the HLS community in the future. Many students commented on the need for greater discussions on race, gender and sexuality at HLS beyond the Parody context, and this open forum was a starting point for productive discussions to come.”

This is one of the most unintentionally hilarious articles that I have ever had to read, and I have read a few in my work at FIRE. But in reality, it is not funny at all. Parody and satire are heavily protected by the Constitution and are given wide latitude in a free society precisely because they are so effective. Sadly, many of Harvard’s students seem to have lost sight of this basic fact. If are still those out there who doubt that political correctness has a stranglehold on our nation’s most prestigious campuses, read this article and doubt no more. The fact that Harvard Law students do not understand that living in an open society means that you might not always be comfortable speaks volumes about the poor job that our schools and universities have done in teaching Americans how to live a life of freedom.

Schools: Harvard University