It has lately become fashionable to see the freedom of expression as under attack, and not entirely without reason. The rise of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” has prompted furious brow-furrowing by those who see the First Amendment as threatened. We need not wade into the national debate about these issues to see that Harvard is not immune from concern.
Last Monday brought the latest episode in this saga, as members of the Law School student activist group Reclaim Harvard Law took down posters equating their movement to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. The Reclaim movement—which is in the name of racial equality on campus—has been occupying the lounge in the Caspersen Student Center, calling it “Belinda Hall” after a slave owned by Law School benefactor Isaac Royall Jr., and cited the posters’ potential offensiveness to Muslim law students that were to meet there.
Throughout the week, both sides subsequently put up posters in the lounge in contravention of the Law School’s no-postering policy, prompting Law School Dean Martha Minow to modify that policy on Friday. That night, however, an as-yet-unknown individual vandalized the Reclaim group’s signs with the words “stop censorship.” Since then, the activists and counter-activists have traded accusations of censorship: the former for removing the posters and the latter for the anonymous vandalism.
It is important to note that, methods aside, the Reclaim movement has legitimate grievances. Though we have opposed some of their demands and tactics before, it is undeniable that many minority law students feel alienated from their peers and from their school. This is an unacceptable state of affairs. We are proud to attend a college and a university that strives to build an ever more inclusive campus. Harvard should be a place for students to find a home, regardless of their background or past.
When law students say that their voices are not being heard, that deeply disturbs us. We have said before that these problems are structural, and indeed they involve the composition of the faculty, the history of the school, and the culture. We are heartened that they are now being brought to the fore.
Past oppression, however, should never serve as a rationale for its continuation in any form. The right to free expression, as messy and complicated as it might be, must never be abridged. At a basic level, a movement like Reclaim is possible because they hold the unalienable rights to speak and assemble.
We deplore the systemic factors that cause minority law students to feel incapable of speaking out on equal terms with their classmates, but we do so precisely because such impediments harm the free exchange of ideas. The benefits of diversity are lost when certain groups, though physically present, cannot be thoroughly vocal and engaged. By failing to hear each other fully, we cannot learn from each other fully, and by not learning from each other fully, we cannot partake in full of the personal, academic, and social growth that Harvard stands for.
The de jure protections of free speech are not a substitute to, but rather a prerequisite for, a university where students can speak on equal footing. They are not a salve that subordinates the concerns of students to blind faith in institutions, but instead the only guarantor of a more inclusive future towards which to work.
History tells us that heavy-handed censorship rarely works to the benefit of the oppressed. Failing to uphold the societal, administrative, and legal rules that, however imperfectly used, purport to give each person an equal microphone means that we no longer have a foundation on which to seek equality. If we lack a philosophical dedication to free speech, why strive for it at all? The graffiti and the removal of posters might seem insignificant, but in fact, they signal an undermining of that commitment.
Our present failures to achieve our high-minded ideals of genuine diversity and inclusivity are never reasons to reject our goals. Indeed, they are reasons to rededicate ourselves to them, and so too it must be with the freedom of expression.
Deliberate ProgressProgress may be a duty on us all, but it must happen deliberately, with due consideration of consequences.
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