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Harvard president defends free speech in commencement speech; Harvard still actively suppresses student rights

By May 26, 2017

Yesterday, Harvard celebrated its 366th commencement, and those watching in the audience and at home were treated to an ironic display as Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust gave an address in full support of free speech.

The speech includes an eloquent defense of the merits of free speech, making many of the points that FIRE has been making and endorsing since our founding in 1999. Especially compelling is Faust’s nuanced treatment of the cost of freedom of expression, how that cost is necessarily paid for the pursuit of the truth, and the responsibility it places in us as members of a liberal society:

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. It requires them as well to be fearless in face of argument or challenge or even verbal insult. And it expects that fearlessness even when the challenge is directed to the very identity — race, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality — that may have made them uncertain about their right to be here in the first place. Demonstrating such fearlessness is hard; no one should be mocked as a snowflake for finding it so.

Hard, but important and attainable. Attainable, we believe, for every member of our community. But the price of free speech cannot be charged just to those most likely to become its target. We must support and empower the voices of all the members of our community and nurture the courage and humility that our commitment to unfettered debate demands from all of us. And that courage means not only resilience in face of challenge or attack, but strength to speak out against injustices directed at others as well.

We highly encourage you to read the full speech.

But as strongly as we commend President Faust’s speech, we must as strongly condemn Harvard’s general failure to live up to those ideals.

This is, of course, the very same Harvard whose speech code holds a “red light” rating —  the lowest an institution can receive in our Spotlight database. This is also the very same Harvard that has the dubious honor of having twice been included on our annual list of the worst schools for free speech — in 2012 and this very year.

We watched the commencement address with great interest because FIRE had taken out a full-page ad in The Crimson’s commencement edition in protest of the planned blacklist for members of single-gender social organizations. The purpose of the ad was to inform students, parents, and alumni that the Harvard Class of 2017 may be the last to experience a campus with protected freedom of association, and to highlight the Harvard administration’s lack of accountability in the process of implementing the policy.

We weren’t the only ones in The Crimson highlighting this unjust policy. The May 24th issue included a poll indicating the policy’s architect and chief proponent, Dean Rakesh Khurana, was facing all-time-low approval ratings due to the unpopularity of the sanctions, and an excellent profile on former Harvard dean, and vocal sanctions critic, Harry R. Lewis. The commencement issue in which our ad appeared also included an article highlighting the extraordinary difficulties groups have faced in attempting to comply with the policy.

It is quite strange that one of the strongest defenses of free speech we’ve seen from a college president is coming from Harvard, a school where basic freedoms are not guaranteed.

Talk is cheap, and freedom of speech has plenty of fair-weather friends hailing their dedication to its principles in public. If Harvard really believes in the admirable principles of its president’s commencement address — and we hope it does — then Harvard must commit to addressing its shortcomings. Harvard’s students deserve more than lip service.

Schools: Harvard University Cases: Harvard University: Blacklisting of Final Club, Fraternity, and Sorority Students