Problematic: The Battle for Free Speech

Over the last few weeks at Yale, there was a series of student outcries following an email sent out by Erika Christakis, a resident housemaster. She had written an email that advocated for free expression and challenged the Yale administration’s apparent restriction of certain “offensive” Halloween costumes. The email sparked immediate outrage from student activist groups, which immediately denounced the housemaster as threatening their safe space. In response, they screamed at, spat on, and called for the resignation of both she and her husband, Nicholas Christakis. When asked by Mr. Christakis when speech should be limited, a student answered, “when it hurts me.

Yale, however, is not Harvard. There is an impression on campus that Harvard might be the exception to the seemingly radical changes regarding the freedom of expression on campuses. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Last year, for example, a Palestinian student group pointed out that the College used water machines made by the Israeli company SodaStream. Consequently, the Harvard administration removed the machines. When some students heard about this, they became outraged that the College would even consider removing the machines simply because they came from Israel. In response to this outcry, the machines were placed back in the dining areas, brand labels removed. In addition, Harvard Law School (HLS) talked with an on-campus activist to improve the language of the educators, which included the removal of the word “violate” from all official literature so as to remove the possibility of triggering sexual assault victims. This would include all uses of the word in relation to the law—a word, in legal context, used often (in fact, the word even appears in the U.S. Bill of Rights). In the end, the HLS administration declined to enact these changes. In the mid-1990s, in response to a highly controversial parody published in a HLS publication, the Law School created “sexual assault” guidelines that prohibited such “insensitive” articles in campus publications. A Harvard Business School paper suffered a similar fate six years later after it published a cartoon ridiculing the graduate school’s administration.

These are just a few, concrete examples of censorship enforced by the Harvard administration and faculty. However, censorship extends beyond the administrative sphere—there is an overwhelming campus culture that supports the quieting of contrary opinions. The placement of safe space stickers on many of the faculty’s office doors announce their support of such attitudes; they place sexuality, gender, race, and religion on the list of protected ideas, but conveniently leave out political and ideological beliefs. This safe space messaging implies, even before a discussion begins, that some stances may be harmful and therefore should be left out. This creates an atmosphere that conflicts with the intent of higher education (which is the furthering of participant’s education and strengthening critical thinking) and the rules of the College as a whole. However, this is not the most important effect of the faculty’s actions. The worst consequence of these standards is the student reaction to them.

Faculty support of safe-space restrictions necessarily supports students who choose to silence opposing opinions rather than address them, a censorship justified by political correctness. This affects not only how students treat each other’s opinions, but also how they treat their own opinions. In an interview with the HPR, Dr. Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College, stated that the effect of these norms—student self-censorship—is worse than other symptoms. According to Dr. Lewis, self-censorship has a huge effect on what we say to each other, affecting both public and private discourse. These problems are not unique to us, as we see in the previous examples. What is unique to our situation is the incredibly able and socially-conscious student body that has control over it. Since students have the greatest effect on free discourse, it is our duty to maximize free speech in order to increase not only free discourse on campus but also to improve academic conditions for education. Only through student action can the boundaries be pushed back in a way that allows for the free exchange of ideas, no matter their popularity. This free exchange, coupled with the academic discussion that follows, is a major part of education and any discouragement thereof is necessarily academically stifling.

This is not the first time the College has had such problems; in 1990, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences came under similar scrutiny. The faculty met and eventually published educational guidelines surrounding free speech. These guidelines stated that the faculty does “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.” The faculty admitted that they have no business in the removal of opinions that some might deem damaging or hurtful. The rise of “safe spaces” and the self-censorship that has inevitably followed runs against those principles. In establishing some ideas as intolerable, not only does the faculty award itself the power to regulate student discussion but students also begin to stop the free exchange themselves. With the creation of any gray area, where some ideas are acceptable and some are not, the dialogue shifts from academic conversation about which ideas are most in line with respective students’ beliefs to which ideas are “unacceptable.” There is a colorful triangle on the doors of many faculty members and a student ready to call others “problematic” in case anyone forgets.

Often this culminates in a single narrative shared by most of the student body. The effect of the push for safer, more politically correct spaces can be seen in the prevailing attitudes on campus. Only two years ago, there was a student opinion that Harvard administrators should fire any staff that expressed ideas contrary to the prevailing liberalism on campus. In an op-ed published in early 2014 in the Crimson, Sandra Korn expresses this exact opinion. However, the call for restricted speech is a contradictory statement in and of itself. The kind of restriction advocated in these arguments is itself controversial, and would be eliminated under the kinds of censorship that is being advocated. In addition, if these kinds of restrictions had been imposed in any earlier time in the history of the university, the kind of radical speech that supports such censorship would never be allowed.

There is an argument to be made by some students (like Korn) that free speech should be limited in order to allow others to speak. However, this idea is flawed. If only those with more politically correct views are allowed to voice their opinions, then they would effectively discriminate against all who held contradictory opinions. The declaration that every voice should be included, except for those less inclusive, can be viewed as hypocrisy.

Also, a censored campus may be an indicator that a university is mistrusting of its students to the point that it needs to create and enforce safe spaces. If a student gains admission to Harvard, it should be expected that they have the ability to handle the responsibility of discourse, especially to further their education. All ideas that could be seen as noxious can, and should be, dealt with in the way that the College’s free speech guidelines suggest: carefully constructed counterarguments and academic analysis. No idea or belief should be safe from scrutiny. It is through the constant re-evaluation of personal beliefs that students grow and change. Students, however, would be much less likely to engage their peers in this kind of discourse with each other if they were under constant pressure of the threat of being called out for political incorrectness (as Princeton students are, through a page designed specifically for reporting “microaggressions”). Without this opportunity, those whose opinions are protected are denied this essential advantage of higher education. It is the student’s duty to combat this notion by engaging in free speech in a way that can be positive for any side of an argument so that all may learn from open discussion.

If the College seeks to attain the kind of diversity of thought seen on the national scale, then the singularity of opinion on campus should be seen as a warning. The fact that students are so in line should demonstrate that there is a barrier, and that there is a force holding it in place. For the most part, this is student driven. Not only should it be explicitly allowed for students to deviate from the norm, if someone’s views differ from those of his peers it should be encouraged for him to talk freely about it—foremost, with fellow students. It is only through these conversations that this talented student body can truly learn.

There is not, because of student support, a single administrative policy to be made that would have the effect of bringing true free speech back to campus. There may be some actions that need to be taken by the Harvard administration, such as the removal of any official opposition to free speech and the re-enforcement of the College’s official guidelines, but the return of the emphasis on unrestricted discourse through students will do the most good. We must, as a whole, be more tolerant of the existence of differing opinions. We are responsible for the sharing of ideas on campus, and therefore we must take it upon ourselves to open that up to all of them, not just those we find agreeable. We must not seek to censor but rather we must produce disagreement in an academic context. Any truly noxious ideas can be beaten with academic integrity, and we, as Harvard students gifted with the opportunity to further our own personal education, must strive to learn through the exchange that occurs as part of free speech. I urge students on Harvard’s campus and on college campuses nationwide to avoid other colleges’ mistakes: we must take individual action to promote free exchange in any way we can.

Image credit: Peter Wright/HPR

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