Free speech at Harvard

Two stories about Harvard in the Boston Globe in the last two days raise a lot of interesting if intractable questions. The first tells of a plan for a Law School committee “to draft a speech code that would ban harassing, offensive language from the classroom.” It is interesting that “another professor’s comment that feminism, Marxism, and black studies have ‘contributed nothing’ to tort law” is included by the reporter in a list of “racial incidents.” Is that comment, that opinion, really a racial incident? By what definition? But perhaps even more unnerving is the name of the new group: the Committee on Healthy Diversity. Oh dear. What sanely skeptical adult does not want to pack a bag and light out for the territory on being offered such a Committee? ‘Give me Sickliness any day!’ will surely be the cry. ‘I don’t want to be healthy,’ one hopes all those jaundiced overtired law students are muttering. But in this healthy climate, Randall Kennedy told Alan Dershowitz that his language was insensitive and that students should not be embarrassed (law students!) to answer. Dershowitz told Kennedy not to try to silence him, and in a very healthy moment Philip Heymann pointed out that teachers at law schools are supposed to challenge students to defend their opinions. “Making someone uncomfortable should not be prohibited,” he said. Indeed not. Perhaps Harvard Law needs another committee: the Committee on Instructive Discomfort.

The second story perhaps errs in the other direction. The subject is the reinvitation of the poet Tom Paulin to give a lecture, after the invitation had been rescinded because of protests over “an interview with an Egyptian newspaper that quotes Paulin describing Brooklyn-born Jews living in Israeli settlements as ‘Nazis’and ‘racists’ and saying that they ‘should be shot dead.'” Now the English department has “argued strenuously for reinviting Paulin and sending a message that the English department supported free speech, even if it is controversial or offensive.” Without taking a position on whether Paulin should be uninvited or reinvited, it is possible to note that surely saying people should be shot dead is something beyond merely controversial or offensive. Perhaps there is a good case to be made for the notion that a poet should be able to say such things, or that free speech depends on allowing even incitement to violence, or that the First Amendment would be fatally weakened by giving in to such protests. But the case can’t be made if the terms are fudged. If one wants to defend incitement to violence as free speech, then one has to call it what it is and not something else.

Comments are closed.