Harvard’s Weak Response Fails to Address Censorship of Party Name

June 11, 2008

Last week, FIRE issued a press release detailing Harvard University’s recent censorship of a party proposed by two student groups due to the party’s name, “Barely Legal.” Specifically, Resident Dean Sharon Howell of the university’s Adams House threatened to reverse the residence hall’s initial acceptance of the party proposed by the Latino Men’s Collective and Fuerza Latina unless the party’s name was changed. Under pressure (and despite making public statements apologizing for any offense the name may have caused), the student groups acceded to Adams House’s demand and changed the party name.

Concerned about this coercive censorship, FIRE wrote to Harvard last month, reminding the school of its binding commitments to free speech and asking for a reaffirmation of such.

Harvard’s response, penned by Associate Attorney Bradley A. Abruzzi, was a disappointing additional threat to freedom of expression. In a letter dated May 30, Abruzzi argued that the threat to cancel the party was “appropriate and in full accord with Harvard’s free speech policy and First Amendment principles” because use of Adams House facilities is “purely discretionary” and any event thus allowed “necessarily carries an endorsement of the event by the House.” Abruzzi also argued that the House administration’s requirement that the party name be changed did not constitute “punitive action” because “[n]either Adams House nor the College undertook to prevent the student groups from following through with the party, which the groups were free to hold elsewhere.”

Needless to say, Abruzzi’s letter did little to allay FIRE’s concerns. In response, we wrote to Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust on Monday to point out the flaws in Abruzzi’s response:

First, Abruzzi’s contention that allowing the party to proceed at Adams House would somehow constitute an “endorsement” of the event by the House fundamentally misconstrues the essential role of free expression in a modern liberal education. As the United States Supreme Court has eloquently stated, the American university occupies a unique and hallowed position in our society as “peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas,'” a locus of intellectual exchange where “the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital.” Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972). Given this proud distinction, it is a mistake to maintain, as Abruzzi does, that the mere facilitation of protected expression by Harvard is the equivalent of its endorsement. Indeed, Abruzzi’s contention is plainly untenable: Does anyone really believe that Harvard fully endorses all of the diverse speech accommodated in its classrooms, halls, and residences, simply by providing the space in which this wide range of expression occurs? Of course not. Such an endorsement is not only impossible, but it is also incompatible with the university’s mission as a true marketplace of ideas.

Further, the threat to cancel the party only after it was advertised under the name “Barely Legal” illustrates an indefensible double standard at work. The Harvard Crimson reports that Adams House has hosted such events as “Erotica Night” and “S&M bingo.” Even if one sees a sexual connotation in “Barely Legal,” there is no real difference in these themes. The laughably mild idea “so crazy it should be illegal”as a party organizer described the point of the “Barely Legal” party’s nameis still less controversial. While policing the themes of student parties directly contradicts Harvard’s promises of free expression, doing so in an inconsistent and arbitrary manner adds insult to injury.

Finally, Abruzzi outlines several grounds for denying student requests for use of Adams House facilities, including “security, potential disruption, and burden on staff.” But Abruzzi fails to provide any indication whatsoever that the proposed party would have precipitated any of these problems. To the contrary, the student leadership of both groups publicly stated that they meant no offense by the party’s name and that they in no way intended to glorify or encourage illegal activity. Such a clarification should have provided more than enough reassurance to Adams House administrators; the fact that it did not indicates a plain lack of common sense on their part. That Dean Howell felt compelled to tell The Harvard Crimson that the student groups “should have been more thoughtful considering the context” is an ominous sign for Adams House residents and indeed for all Harvard students, a depressing signal that students had best think twice before engaging in protected speech on campus. There can be little doubt that warnings like Howell’s serve only to chill protected expression at Harvard.

We await Harvard’s response. Of course, we’ll keep you posted.

Schools:  Harvard University

Cases:  Harvard University: Administration Threatened to Cancel ‘Barely Legal’ Party Due to Event’s Name