For better or worse, Harvard University is enshrined in the popular imagination as our nation’s premier liberal arts institution. While I blame Elle Woods, the fact is that every aspect of Harvard’s institutional conduct is examined and imitated by the rest of the academy. Simply put, Harvard is a trend setter.
So when Harvard does something foolish- like censoring a proposed student party because of its mildly risque name– it’s kind of a big deal. And that’s exactly what Harvard did during the spring semester, breaking its own extensive promises of an unfettered right to free expression on campus.
Here’s the facts: Two Harvard student groups – the Latino Men’s Collective (LMC) and Fuerza Latina – sought permission to hold a dance party in the dining hall of the school’s Adams House residence. The request was typical: student groups hold all kinds of events in the dining hall. In the past, the House has hosted “Erotica Night” and “S&M bingo.” A dance would be nothing special, and the request was approved.
But when the LMC and Fuerza Latina started advertising the party around campus under the name “Barely Legal” – as in “so crazy it should be illegal,” according to the party organizers – Adams House administrators abruptly reversed the decision. Even though they publicly apologized for any offense and explained the name’s thoroughly mild intent, party planners were quickly told that if the name wasn’t changed, the party would be canceled. Under pressure, the student groups acceded to Adams House’s demand and changed the party name.
It’s worth noting that rather than being some kind of rank obscenity in and of itself, the phrase “barely legal” is something of a staple in the lexicon these days. A quick internet search turns up a legal blog run by two recent law school grads, a radio show dealing with legal topics, and the name of an art show by British graffiti artist Banksy. Now, if the name of the party was the “Highly Illegal Activities Guaranteed” party, their fear might be more justified, but here the students were simply using a barely edgy name.
Second, the party’s advertising – you can watch the YouTube ad for the event here – is almost laughably tame. It’s amazing – and a little scary – that Harvard administrators didn’t use some common sense before deciding that this ad for “Harvard’s first prefrosh blacklight party” was sufficient grounds for censorship.
Concerned about Adams House’s censorship, my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote to Harvard last month to remind the school of its binding commitments to free speech. The response from Harvard Associate Attorney Bradley A. Abruzzi was disappointingly illogical. Abruzzi argued that threatening to cancel the party was justifiable because any event taking place at Adams House “necessarily carries an endorsement” of the expression. Harvard’s claim that simply allowing a given event to take place on campus implies an endorsement of the event illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of free expression. Are they saying that Harvard does endorse chocolate genitalia (part of a previous Adams house party) but not a milder innuendo? Of course, no one assumes that a college agrees with or endorses all the expression on its campus. Not only would that be incompatible with the whole ‘marketplace of ideas’ thing, it would also be, frankly, impossible.
Come on, Harvard. You know better than this. This is a silly misstep, but you should understand there are serious implications: you are miseducating your students about basic freedoms and the logic of individual rights and misinforming the schools that look up to you about the right way to handle a speech controversy. Admit you made a mistake and move on. It’s what Elle Woods would do.