Harvard Persists in Supporting Censorship of ‘Barely Legal’ Party

By on July 7, 2008

At Harvard University, free expression only goes so far. Student publications that publish nude photographs of Harvard students are OK at Harvard, but the words “Barely Legal” are off limits if you want to hold a party with that name with the permission of Harvard’s Adams House.

After the Latino Men’s Collective and Fuerza Latina, two Harvard student groups, publicized their party on the Adams House e-mail list using the “Barely Legal” name this spring, several students responded with complaints. The student leadership of both organizations publicly stated that they meant no offense and did not intend to glorify or encourage illegal activity, but they were told by Adams House administrators that under that name, the party would not be allowed to proceed. The students agreed to take down all publicity for the party (but see this remaining YouTube advertisement). According to The Harvard Crimson, Adams House Resident Dean Sharon Howell remarked that the students “should have been more thoughtful considering the context”apparently a reference to the fact that entering freshmen (known as “prefrosh”) were to be visiting campus on the weekend of the party. As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff wrote, “Maybe Harvard Thought It Was the ‘Manifestly Illegal’ Party?”

FIRE wrote to Howell about the censorship on May 8 and received a strange response from Harvard Associate Attorney Bradley E. Abruzzi. Abruzzi argued that “a grant of access for an organization’s event necessarily carries an endorsement of the event by the House.” This response dangerously raised the stakes in a largely humorous case. We responded on June 9, writing president Drew Faust:

Does anyone really believe that Harvard fully endorses all of the diverse speech accommodated in its classrooms, halls, and residences, simply by providing the space in which this wide range of expression occurs? Of course not. Such an endorsement is not only impossible, but it is also incompatible with the university’s mission as a true marketplace of ideas.

Fortunately, in a July 3 response from Vice President and General Counsel Robert W. Iuliano, Abruzzi’s argument was dropped out. All that remains is the original act of censorship, defended in terms of Adams House’s exercise of “discretion” to determine which events may or may not occur on House grounds. Everything about the party had been approved but the name, so this still looks like out-and-out censorship to me.

How far Adams House has come from the “old Adams House,” which had (and continues to have) truly racy parties in the very same space! The double standard here is breathtaking.

I admit that Adams House parties sometimes discomforted me as an 18-year-old sophomore there in 1991. But without the freedom of expression to hold such events, would Adams House have had anything like the atmosphere that contributed to the creative success of my classmate Thomas Lauderdale? Freedom of expression ought to be better protected at Harvard than most everywhere elsenot the opposite. As the magazine 02138 points out:

For Lauderdale and [Adams House classmate China] Forbes, this musical diversity stems from the creative freedom they enjoyed at Harvard. Adams House, Lauderdale explains, “was a huge concentration of fabulousness.” He fit right in, walking around campus sporting a cocktail dress and a platinum blond hairdo. On occasion, he dressed up as a rabbit. As a senior, Lauderdale threw a party that resulted in the permanent closing of the famed Adams House pool. He recalls fondly that, “at three a.m., the house master walked in to find 75 naked people running around.”

The pool may be shut down, but Lauderdale and Forbes have found a way to keep the fabulousness alive.

R.I.P., Adams House fabulousness.

Schools: Harvard University Cases: Harvard University: Administration Threatened to Cancel ‘Barely Legal’ Party Due to Event’s Name