As Harvard Law School students and faculty prepare for a virtual fall semester, the school recently adopted a social media policy placing restrictions on the online sharing of statements made during class discussion.
Named the HLS Community Principle on Non-Attribution, the policy prohibits affiliates from publicly sharing in-class statements in a matter that would identify the speaker to anyone not present for the original discussion. Modeled after the internationally-recognized Chatham House Rule, it aims to protect students from potential widespread bullying or harassment for the opinions they express in class, according to the Law School’s website.
The policy argues the Law School must provide an environment in which students feel comfortable expressing their beliefs, exploring new ideas, or asking difficult questions. Law students are also often asked to advocate for opinions contrary to their own for the sake of class debate.
“Everybody is learning, everybody has to think and respond within fast-moving discussions, and everybody will make mistakes as part of the law school learning process,” the policy reads. “In training to be the best lawyers they can be, students must be able to try arguments on for size, change their minds, and take risks.”
The policy claims social media may present a danger to this method of learning by taking statements out of context and making students afraid to participate fully.
“Because of the potential permanence and widespread dissemination of communications through social media and other forms of communication designed to reach members of the public, if statements made in class are quoted or described with attribution in those media, students may be reluctant to approach any question, particularly controversial ones, with the openness and vulnerability they need to grow as lawyers and to learn from one another,” it reads.
The new policy did not elicit a widespread reaction from students across campus, as several professors previously enacted similar rules in their own classrooms.
A similar policy has also been in place at the Harvard Business School. It lists “honesty and integrity” as essential “Community Values” and requires students to keep any personal and professional information shared in class confidential.
“The mission of Harvard Business School is to educate leaders who make a difference in the world,” the Business School’s website states. “Achieving this mission requires an environment of trust and mutual respect, free expression and inquiry, and a commitment to truth, excellence, and lifelong learning.”
Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote in an email that the new policy does not intend to entirely bar students from posting about in-class statements on social media. The policy also clarifies students may attribute statements made in class when reporting misconduct or seeking assistance from Law School or University administrators.
“Nothing in the policy addresses a student’s sharing classroom comments in accordance with the policy’s non-attribution principle, or sharing comments with attribution with others in the same course or in ‘interpersonal exchanges about class discussion,’” Neal wrote.
Still, Law School students on Twitter warned that the non-attribution rule will not stop them in the future from publicly calling out students who have made offensive in-class comments.
“For the record, nothing in the policy appears to apply after we graduate,” law student Andre R. Manuel wrote in a Tweet. “So consider this notice that if you say something racist in a class I'm in, I WILL bring the receipts to your Senate confirmation. Future 34-year old 5th Circuit nominees beware.”
The non-attribution rule follows an April incident in which Chance M. Fletcher — president of the Law School’s Federalist Society — was criticized online for cleaning a gun during a class held on Zoom. A screenshot of Fletcher holding the gun in class went viral across Twitter and was featured in several news publications.
The policy also arrives at a time when freedom of speech across universities has been widely debated. In a 2019 symposium hosted by the Law School’s Federalist Society, former Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Jesse M. Panuccio declared a free speech crisis on college campuses. He pointed to a 2017 Gallup survey which found 60 percent of American college students agree that the climate on their campus prevents them from sharing their beliefs for fear of offending others.
“If that is what students believe — if they believe they are not free to freely explore, debate, and refine ideas in college — what is the purpose of being there?” Panuccio said in 2019. “These ideas: the freedom to speculate, to be wrong, and the freedom to refine and rebut speculation and error, lie at the very core of productive academic inquiry.”