Commentary

Free Speech Loses Ground as Harvard Retracts Offers to Admitted Students

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Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s president, told graduating seniors last month that the institution’s theory of education requires students to be "fearless in face of argument or challenge or even verbal insult."
June 13, 2017

Suppose you’re an incoming freshman at Harvard University, which in April reportedly rescinded admissions offers for  the fall term to 10 students who had posted racist and obscene memes over the internet. Will the controversy make you more or less likely to speak your mind when you get to campus?

I think we all know the answer. And that’s what troubles me about Harvard’s decision, which will fuel an already-tense atmosphere of censorship at colleges across the country.

Let’s get two things straight from the start. First, the memes were profoundly hateful. One associated sexual practices among Jews with the Holocaust, another linked Muslims to bestiality, a third made light of pedophilia, and a fourth used the term "piñata" in reference to suicide by Mexican-Americans.

Second, there is no constitutional issue here. The First Amendment bars the government — not private institutions — from restricting free speech. So Harvard has the legal right to retract admissions offers from the people who trafficked in these images. What’s more, Harvard, like many colleges, has a policy that acceptance may be withdrawn if the prospective student engages in, among other things, morally compromising behavior.

But that doesn’t mean it was right to rescind the offers. By rejecting the offending students, the university reinforced the idea that students shouldn’t offend one another. And that’s inimical to free exchange and expression, which Harvard claims to prize over everything else.

Offense is always in eyes of the beholder. I don't want a university administrator making that judgment for us. Do you?
Just last month, for example, President Drew Gilpin Faust devoted her commencement address to a ringing affirmation of free exchange and deliberation. "Our values and our theory of education rest on the assumption that members of our community will take the risk of speaking and will actively compete in our wild rumpus of argument and ideas," Faust declared. "It requires them as well to be fearless in face of argument or challenge or even verbal insult."

Yet the decision to turn away the 10 admitted students communicates exactly the opposite: Students should be afraid — very afraid — when confronted with controversial or offensive material, especially if it concerns the thorny question of diversity on campus. And instead of taking risks, they should keep their mouths shut.

Students hear that message, loud and clear. In a 2016 survey of over 3,000 undergraduates, more than half agreed that the climate on campus prevents some people from "saying things that might offend others."

More than two-thirds of the students seemed OK with that, favoring restrictions on racist and offensive speech. And it’s hard to blame them. Bewildered by the ever-mounting charges of "microaggression" and other forms of racial offense on campus, they want clear directives on what’s truly offensive and what isn’t. But who will determine that?

The students aren’t sure, of course, so they err on the side of caution. And the longer they’re on campus, the more cautious they become. In a 2010 study asking students whether it was "safe to hold unpopular positions on college campuses," 40 percent of freshmen "strongly" agreed, but just 30 percent of seniors strongly agreed, suggesting that college makes them warier than they were when they arrived.

Many people — possibly, most people — on campuses think that’s all right: If you’re harboring offensive ideas, you should be reluctant to express them. But they’re wrong, as Harvard’s own declarations remind us. Look again at President Faust’s commencement address, which encouraged "unfettered debate" even in the face of insults. We won’t get that if we’re always looking over our shoulders, wondering whom we are insulting.

That doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to racism and other forms of bigotry, of course. The memes that the admitted Harvard students circulated were vile beyond measure, and they deserved every piece of condemnation that they received.

But the students didn’t deserve to have their admission rescinded, which opens the door for all kinds of censorship in the future. Over the past few years, for example, some students opposing Israel have produced disgustingly anti-Semitic imagery: Stars of David dripping with blood, for example, or superimposed upon swastikas.

So if a Palestinian student was admitted to Harvard and was found to have circulated one of these images, would the same people who praised the university for turning away the 10 offending students also demand that the Palestinian’s admission be revoked? I doubt it. Offense is always in eyes of the beholder. I don’t want a university administrator making that judgment for us. Do you?

And when that administrator is also someone who claims to support free speech over everything else, we’ve entered the theater of the absurd. The best reply to bad speech is always more speech, not less. That’s a lesson we all have to learn, over and over again, until we know it by heart.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author, with Emily Robertson, of The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools (2017, University of Chicago Press).