Strangling Satire at Harvard

By on December 12, 2012

Although he has not earned a spot on Forbes‘ "Richest People In America" list (yet), FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley nevertheless appears on Forbes‘ website today with a column titled "Harvard, Legendary Home Of Harvard Lampoon, Strangles Campus Satire." 

The column calls attention to Harvard University’s latest conniption over free speech. Here’s the basic story: An anonymous satirical flyer was slid under Harvard students’ doors, inviting them to show up at a local frozen yogurt shop in "semi-bro attire" to apply to join a fictitious "final club," the exclusive Harvard equivalent of a fraternity. What really drew the ire of many of Harvard’s students and at least one Harvard administrator was a series of seemingly sarcastic footnotes on the flyer reading: "Jews need not apply"; "Seriously no fucking Jews; Coloreds OK"; and "Rophynol" (incorrectly spelling the name of the "date rape" drug Rohypnol).

Robert’s article points out the irony of an institution with such a rich history of satire (does the Harvard Lampoon ring a bell to anyone?) struggling so mightily to recognize its value. Here’s a short snippet from the article:

Without question, this flyer touched upon issues that many find upsetting, but to place restrictions on the topics that satire can address is to render this form of social commentary pointless. Satire has been used for centuries (OK, millennia) as a vehicle for societal comment through mockery. Not everyone will find it humorous, and some will find it downright offensive, to the point of outrage. That’s what makes satire so effective; the controversy that it generates draws widespread attention to the behavior being ridiculed, thereby igniting a public dialogue about it. 

FIRE isn’t alone in our disappointment with Harvard’s response to this attempt at satire. Today, the editors of The Harvard Crimson student newspaper published an editorial criticizing the administration’s disappointing response and highlighting the fact that the controversy over speech can be used to mask what the Crimson sees as the real underlying issue:

In responding to the flyers rather than the clubs themselves, administrators have pointed to their obviously inflammatory and tasteless language while ignoring the more pressing issues masked beneath. Although off-color, the flyers strongly underscored problems with exclusivity of final clubs by playing on their reputations as exclusive and sexist. Paradoxically, the University seeks the authors who brought these issues into the focus rather than addressing the deeper issues themselves.

While FIRE of course has no position on final clubs, the sort of discussion that the Crimson is talking about here may be exactly the discussion the flyer’s authors were hoping to spark. Hopefully, the whole Harvard community will come to realize the value of satire—even satire that offends. And hopefully one day Robert will once again be featured in Forbes—but for his wealth, and not to call attention to another example of Unlearning Liberty on a college campus.