FIRE Chairman on Harvard’s Censorship of Controversial Speaker

October 23, 2009

In this week’s Boston Phoenix, FIRE Co-founder and Chairman Harvey Silverglate weighs in on the latest free speech controversy at Harvard College. An anti-immigration speaker, invited to speak on an undergraduate-organized panel on the future of U.S. immigration, was disinvited last week by student organizers, the Harvard Crimson reported.

Samantha pointed out that this latest flap at Harvard was yet another disturbing example of students “unlearning liberty” and actively seeking to suppress unpopular or offensive speech—speech that is constitutionally protected outside the campus gates. Harvey, in large part, echoes this sentiment, but he points to Harvard’s speech codes, “devised by the administration and approved by the faculty,” as the forerunner of the current student-led illiberal initiatives.

How do these codes play into the current contretemps? At Harvard and on campuses across the country, students are the new speech police. Censorship—not more speech—is the weapon of choice against viewpoints with which they disagree. The restrictive policies implemented a generation ago by administrators, and allowed by faculty, are now bearing the fruit of student self-censorship. In the marketplace of ideas, you don’t learn how to offer a superior product by forcing your opponents off of the shelf.

Harvey has long been a critic of the Harvard speech codes, and he campaigned for their repeal in his effort to join the Harvard Board of Overseers last year. The danger is apparent, evidenced by this controversy, as well as the April 2009 Harvard Law Review comment arguing in support of Temple University’s speech code (a piece of student-produced scholarship dismantled by former FIRE Jackson Fellow Kelly Sarabyn). Harvard—and other colleges and universities with self-appointed student speech police—must ask themselves: How can a liberal arts education exist without liberty of thought and discussion?

Schools:  Harvard University