Letter from FIRE to Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, July 27, 2011

By July 27, 2011

July 27, 2011

President Drew Gilpin Faust

Office of the President
Harvard University
Massachusetts Hall
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (617-495-8550)

Dear President Faust:

As you might remember from our previous correspondence, FIRE unites leaders in the fields of civil rights and civil liberties, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, freedom of religion, due process, freedom of speech, and academic freedom on America’s college campuses (see thefire.org).

FIRE is concerned about the threat to freedom of expression posed by Harvard University’s investigation of a professor who published an opinion piece in a newspaper. This is our understanding of the facts; please correct us if you believe we are in error.

On July 16, 2011, Harvard Summer School economics professor Subramanian Swamy published an opinion piece (enclosed here) in the Indian newspaper Daily News & Analysis in response to a July 13 terrorist bombing in Mumbai. The column makes several suggestions about how to “negate the political goals of Islamic terrorism in India,” advocating 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.”

In response, according to an article in today’s Harvard Crimson, a group of Harvard students have begun a petition against Swamy. The petition demands that Harvard “repudiate Swamy’s remarks and terminate his association with the University” on the ground that he is “a bigoted promoter of communalism in India” whose column “breaches the most basic standards of respect and tolerance.” The petition concludes that “Subramanian Swamy can have no place in the Harvard community.”

These students certainly have the right to request that Harvard violate its own promises of free expression, but Harvard must not accede to such demands. Yet, the Crimson article quotes Harvard Summer School Dean Donald H. Pfister as stating that “We will give this matter our serious attention.”

While many matters compete for Harvard’s serious attention, this statement in context suggests that Harvard is investigating Swamy for his expression. This likely interpretation of Dean Pfister’s statement will unacceptably chill expression among members of Harvard’s community.

As you surely know, Harvard has made strong and extensive promises of free expression to the Harvard community in its “Free Speech Guidelines,” adopted by Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1990:

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.

Because no other community defines itself so much in terms of knowledge, few others place such a high priority on freedom of speech. As a community, we take certain risks by assigning such a high priority to free speech. We assume that the long-term benefits to our community will outweigh the short-term unpleasant effects of sometimes-noxious views. Because we are a community united by a commitment to rational processes, we do not permit censorship of noxious ideas. We are committed to maintaining a climate in which reason and speech provide the correct response to a disagreeable idea.

Members of the University do not share similar political or philosophical views, nor would such agreement be desirable. They do share, however, a concern for the community defined in terms of free inquiry and dissemination of ideas. Thus, they share a commitment to policies that allow diverse opinions to flourish and to be heard.

The threat of a disciplinary investigation of Swamy stands in sharp and unflattering contrast to this admirable and appropriate understanding of the importance of freedom of expression in the academic community. 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. As University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton wrote in a memo to the university’s chancellors in 2001 in the wake of a dispute over controversial speech:

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.” [Available at http://thefire.org/article/4943.html.]

FIRE requests that you or Dean Pfister immediately reassure the Harvard community that freedom of expression is protected at Harvard University and that there is nothing to investigate about Subramanian Swamy’s published opinions.

We ask for a response to this letter by August 10, 2011. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

 

Adam Kissel ’94
Vice President of Programs

Encl.

cc:
Donald H. Pfister, Dean, Harvard Summer School
Subramanian Swamy, Professor, Harvard Summer School

 

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