Harvard Law’s Tribal Conflict

By June 1, 2005

Harvard Law School (HLS), while perhaps best known as FIRE President David French’s alma mater, is home to some of the most prestigious legal minds in America. Lately, however, it has also been connected with several incidents of accused plagiarism on behalf of its professors, and unfortunately for one of the accused professors, the well-known Laurence Tribe, students at the Duke of the North’s law school are no intellectual slouches either. The HLS Drama Society, for its annual “Parody” show, performed a song entitled “I’m Larry Tribe” (to the tune of Donna Summer’s “I Will Survive”) that poked fun at the professor. While I don’t know if it’s fair or not, it’s pretty funny, and you can read the whole thing here or listen here (sample lyrics: “He’s Jesus Christ/He’s Larry Tribe/Not just Harvard’s best professor/But the smartest man alive…”).

Famous people can be the object of biting parodies, and usually they refrain from mentioning those parodies so as not to bring attention to them. In this case, however, Professor Tribe saw fit to comment on the parody in an email to his class (scroll down to “What’s Larry’s Secret” to read about it), reportedly remarking on the parody and saying, “The only thing I’ve heard that I wish I could comment on but don’t feel free to say anything about just yet is the business of my supposedly copying some passages from somebody’s work without sufficiently crediting the original author.” The HLS Drama Society, which felt that this email conflicted with an earlier statement in which Professor Tribe said, “I personally take full responsibility for that failure [to attribute some material],” pounced on the issue to deliver a new parody as well as a protest against Harvard’s speech code.

In a long entry on its blog, the HLS Drama Society “retracted” its earlier song about Professor Tribe and offered a new song to replace it that makes fun of all of the Harvard professors who have recently been accused of plagiarism. It also struck a blow against Harvard’s speech restrictions, quoting an article by FIRE cofounder Harvey Silverglate and Legal Director Greg Lukianoff:

This musical segment has been specifically crafted to be in compliance with Harvard Law School’s stringent regulations on parodies, under which parodies must avoid offending anyone in any way related to gender, or they will be deemed “sexual harassment.” These strict regulations, according to prominent civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate (HLS ’67), may explain why “there has not been a truly biting parody on hot-button issues related to gender politics at the law school since” the regulations were imposed back in 1995.

It goes on:

As part of Harvard Law School’s speech code calculated to ensure that in dialogue within our community, no one feels disrespected and no one’s feelings are ever hurt in any other way—which is what forced us to drop that foul-mouthed clown from the Parody, to help convey “a sense of humor rather than a spirit of vindictiveness”—under Harvard Law School’s “parody fairness doctrine,” we are required to run on this blog any other parody treatments of the plagiarism issue at Harvard Law School readers may wish to submit which defend the plagiarism involved, which offer alternate interpretations of how the plagiarism occurred, or which bear some other relation to this year’s Parody.

While the blog entry is undoubtedly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the regulations are real, and, as Harvey noted, they do serve as a chilling effect on speech at Harvard Law. Just because people might not be frequently punished for speech at a particular university does not mean that a speech code is less damaging to the quality of discourse on campus. The fact that a generation of Harvard law students understands the menace of speech codes will hopefully help FIRE turn the tide against unconstitutional and immoral speech codes at our nation’s most venerated institutions.