Harvard’s Thought Police: Whither Goes Free Speech?

Unknown-2Here’s my TIME.com column today, co-authored with my husband, Nicholas Christakis. There are few things I care more about than free speech and I think it’s fair to say that college campuses are currently one of the most restrictive speech environments in the United States. I love Harvard, my alma mater and current employer, and it breaks my heart to see what’s happening to higher education’s crown jewel:

Is a satirical flyer distributed a few days ago at Harvard with joking references to anti-semitism, “coloreds,” and sexual assault worth defending? We think so. The protection of free speech is meaningless if what we really mean is “free speech we find appropriate.” When we prohibit or punish certain kinds of statements, even vile ones, then we are protecting speech only insofar as we agree with it or it does not offend us. This is not only a logically inconsistent position, but it is also one that harms our students.

The incident illustrates how badly well-intended policies and actions regarding free speech can lead us away from our core values. The flyer in question was a mock invitation to one of Harvard’s infamous all-male ‘final’ clubs that was distributed under room doors in nine different dorms. Announcing the arrival of a new fictional club emphasizing inclusion, diversity and love (and aptly named “The Pigeon”), the invitation warned: “Jews need not apply. Seriously, no f—- Jews. Coloreds okay.” It also referred to the date rape drug, Rohypnol. Despite the fact that it was satirizing the social clubs’ reputation for exclusivity and abuse of women, a firestorm erupted and an investigation was initiated to find the anonymous authors.Unknown

We tend to think of the 1990s as the height of political correctness on college campuses. But as a new book argues, college students today are more insulated from offensive or unpopular speech, ostensibly for their own and the greater good, than they were twenty years ago. In Unlearning Liberty, author Greg Lukianoff describes a perfect storm of highly-tuned cultural sensitivity, bureaucratic bloat, and fear of litigation that has created a stultifying atmosphere on campuses nationwide where unpopular ideas and offensive language are policed to an absurd extent. Lukianoff’s organization, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, (which includes a number of Harvard faculty on its board) rates campuses that curtail free speech and Harvard currently has the worst rating

Continued at: http://ideas.time.com/2012/12/04/wither-goes-free-speech-at-harvard/#ixzz2E5wPj4tT

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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2 Responses to Harvard’s Thought Police: Whither Goes Free Speech?

  1. I think you are right about this one Erika. In the realm of free speech we run the risk of being offended. It’s a risk we have to take. But, more than running the risk of offense we also have the opportunity to get facts and data out to what appears to be an American public that is not informed on many subjects. One thing I personally cannot afford as a Roman Catholic is for one of our institutions like Catholic Jesuit Fordham University and its President Joseph McShane, to shut down open inquiry about positions he personally finds offensive, as he did, when their Conservative Club was pressured to rescind an invitation to Ann Coulter. McShane found her personally offensive and insinuated that her views were directly against Catholic Church teaching when in fact the numerous Lefties who spout off positions seriously contrary to Church Teaching are given awards from Fordham under McShane’s watchful prejudiced eye. His behavior prompts me to want to ask a series of curious questions which would be, “How strong is your position that you allow no counter point? What are you afraid of Rev. McShane? That your position cannot stand up under some scrutiny? If so, how strong is your position really? Or are you censoring one kind of information to the exclusion of other kinds “for the common good” and why can’t the students who are adults make those decisions for themselves in the marketplace of ideas where they are presented with choices to pick and choose at will? ” If some big thought cannot stand to go unchallenged then it probably is a weak one. If we don’t like a crucifix in a jar of urine we can say so. We can challenge it. By putting a bobble head of Obama in a jar of beer. Or something like that. We can push back and we can disagree. We can withstand name calling or anything else. I have been doing that since grade school. With great success. I recently posted to an online chat in which a host surreptitiously blathered on about non existent statistics. I found many other statistics to refute his argument that “everyone” is on board with his position. Everyone was not on board with his position. In fact, millions were against it. As he blathered on I posted numerous articles to refute his position. He grew silent. He was unprepared for anyone to challenge him. He didn’t know what to do. And he was just lying about who really thought what and why. When people get out in public they had better be able to back up what they say with data and facts. Otherwise they are going to be found out for the prejudiced pretenders they are. Have a good day Erika. Keep putting up great posts like this one. Liz+

  2. Thanks for your comments, Elizabeth. I was also very troubled by the Fordham president’s decision to exclude Ann Coulter. Why not let college students debate ideas out in the open? I even think holocaust deniers should be allowed to speak (though I don’t think anyone should go listen to them!). There are very few instances where I would support disinviting or silencing someone. I’m very libertarian on this point and often find myself defending people whose views I don’t agree with. Fine. Big deal. That’s what we’re supposed to do in a civil and open society. As my friend, Dan Gilbert, wrote in a book called DANGEROUS IDEAS: “We live in a world in which people are beheaded, imprisoned, demoted, and censured simply because they have opened their mouths, flapped their lips, and vibrated some air. Yes, those vibrations can make us feel sad or stupid or alienated. Tough shit. That’s the price of admission to the marketplace of ideas. Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we’re in one. When all the words in our public conversation are fair, good, and true, it’s time to make a run for the fence.”

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