Dershowitz on Summers

March 1, 2005

Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz (a member of FIRE’s Board of Editors for its series of Guides to student rights on campus), writes in the Times Online about Larry Summers. Dershowitz locates the controversy where it belongs—within the larger context of campus speech policies and censorship:

The problem is that if a university president were to be fired because he expressed the views put forward by Summers, it would become only a matter of time before professors, researchers and students would also be subjected to discipline for expressing similar views.

Once a point of view becomes an impermissible one on a university campus, nobody can express it without fear of recrimination. Dismissing a president on such grounds would give an imprimatur of legitimacy to censorship of the views that formed the basis for his dismissal.

That is why this issue is bigger than Summers or even Harvard University. It is really about a long-term, systematic effort to impose a political-correctness straitjacket on certain views, especially at universities.

It began with the enactment of speech codes, harassment policies and other disciplinary mechanisms designed to censor speech deemed offensive to some. The Summers presidency has stood in stark contrast to political correctness. He has refused to subscribe to the first commandment for university presidents: make only speeches that risk offending nobody.

Speech codes and other policies have already seriously stifled open discussions of gender, race, and sexual orientation on campus. What is especially disturbing about the Summers case is that we are seeing how the “correct” views in those areas can now trump scientific inquiry. The hard sciences seem to have been less impacted by campus repression than other areas, but that period of relative immunity may be coming to an end.

Finally, a brief note on Dershowitz. I’m not sure that I agree with him on many substantive issues of public policy (and we clashed more than once when I took his class at Harvard), but I never had any doubt that he was absolutely committed to defending my free speech rights. At a time at Harvard Law School when even professors would shout down dissenting students (as I was once shouted down when I objected to a professor describing an unborn child as a “clump of cells”) and conservative students routinely received threatening messages (like “I want you to die, you f***ing fascist!”) in their campus mail, Dershowitz stood as a courageous defender of free speech and academic freedom. Thanks to him, we knew that we were never alone on campus—he helped give me the courage to keep raising my hand and keep challenging the campus orthodoxy. I knew that if I ever got in trouble, one of America’s best lawyers would stand by my side, and, for that, I am eternally grateful.

Schools:  Harvard University