Harvard Students Unlearn Liberty

October 20, 2009

We speak and write often at FIRE about the phenomenon of college students "unlearning liberty." In our educational system, students are too often taught by example that censorship is an appropriate response to unpopular or offensive opinions. The result is a disturbing number of cases in which students themselves act as censors.

One such incident has just occurred at Harvard University, where anti-illegal-immigration activist Jim Gilchrist was recently uninvited from a student-run conference. According to the Harvard Crimson, Gilchrist was set to participate in a panel on immigration at the Harvard Undergraduate Legal Committee’s annual Public Interest and Law Conference this past Saturday, but was uninvited from the conference just days before his scheduled appearance. The Crimson reported that

The movement to ban Gilchrist from the conference was largely initiated by Kyle A. de Beausset ’11, who in early October began using different university mailing lists to build support for uninviting Gilchrist due to his involvement in the Minuteman Project, which organizes civilians to patrol the border for illegal immigrants and to report crossings to the Border Patrol. 

"It might be an interesting intellectual exercise for Harvard students to hear extremist views," de Beausset wrote in one of these e-mails, but he added that the "broader implications of legitimizing these extremist views with the Harvard name" were more important.

Of course, it is far more than a mere "interesting intellectual exercise" for students to hear extremist views and other views with which they disagree. Confronting opposing, controversial, and even offensive viewpoints is an essential part of learning to express and defend one’s own views in a compelling way, and thus an essential part of an education. Harvard itself is aware of this fact; the university’s "Free Speech Guidelines" state that

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. (Emphases added.)

Sadly, it would appear that at least some (and perhaps much, since I’ve heard of no significant protest or outrage over the disinvitation) of Harvard’s student body has missed the importance of these words. For his part, Gilchrist had this to say about the flap:

That future graduates of the most renowned university in the world are literally afraid to support the very cornerstone of the foundation of our nation, namely ‘free speech,’ ought to frighten anyone looking to America as the beacon of liberty, freedom, and justice for all.

I wonder if students like de Beausset see the irony in these powerful words about freedom and about all of those "looking to America" for hope coming from Gilchrist rather than themselves.

Schools:  Harvard University