Harvard Must Remember Free Speech Promises, End Investigation of Professor’s Newspaper Column

By on July 28, 2011

FIRE has written to 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. 

On July 16, in the Indian newspaper Daily News & Analysis, Swamy wrote  the column in response to a terrorist bombing a few days earlier in Mumbai, offering strongly-worded ideas on how to "negate the political goals of Islamic terrorism in India." Among his ideas were 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."

Students at Harvard began circulating a petition calling for Swamy’s ouster, demanding "that the Harvard administration repudiate Swamy’s remarks and terminate his association with the University." More than 270 had signed the petition as of this afternoon.

The right to free speech includes, of course, the right to advocate for reduced free speech rights for those with which one disagrees. When it comes to actually punishing individuals for their expression, however, Harvard has enshrined strong commitments to free speech in its policies, and Harvard may not accede to demands to violate its own policies and highest principles. Harvard’s "Free Speech Guidelines," adopted in 1990, state, for example, that "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."

One would expect that a university of Harvard’s caliber, or any university seriously committed to the free exchange of ideas, would protect free expression on campus. This is why it is so worrying to read Harvard Summer School Dean Donald H. Pfister’s statement to the Crimson that "We will give this matter our serious attention." If this means investigating Swamy for his protected speech (rather than just thinking about how to handle demands for censorship that would violate Harvard’s own policies), then Harvard is already violating its promises of free expression. 

If Harvard has opened a disciplinary investigation, it must end it immediately. Even if not, Pfister’s statement in context may be read as suggesting such an investigation. As we wrote in our letter:

If members of the Harvard community are given to understand that Harvard might begin an investigation—with possible disciplinary consequences—of the views they express, they likely will self-censor. This is precisely the result that a university dedicated to intellectual freedom must seek to avoid. 

We also pointed to an early FIRE case at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for guidance on how a university can successfully deal with calls to punish university members for their protected speech. In the wake of a dispute over a poem published by a University of Alaska professor, then-President Mark Hamilton wrote in a memo to the university’s chancellors in 2001:

Attempts to assuage anger or to demonstrate concern by qualifying our support for free speech serve to cloud what must be a clear message. Noting that, for example, "The University supports the right to free speech, but we intend to check into this matter," or "The University supports the right of free speech, but I have asked Dean X or Provost Y to investigate the circumstances," is unacceptable. There is nothing to "check into," nothing "to investigate."

We hope that Harvard will quickly reach the same position as President Hamilton and reassure the campus community that university administrators will not investigate such obviously protected speech. We also hope that those who are calling for Swamy to be punished will realize that in a free society or at free university, we hear one another’s ideas and, if we are so inclined, argue against them, rather than silencing them completely.    

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