The administration of Harvard Business School caused the resignation of Harbus editor Nick Will because a humor cartoon indirectly referred to Career Services employees as “incompetent morons.” Such harsh criticism— from a cartoonist, no less — of the school’s extremely unreliable online Career System was, “deeply hurtful and demoralizing” for the Career Services staff, according to HBS Senior Associate Dean Walter C. Kester.
Protestations aside, the HBS administration did not merely “informally talk” to Will about their concerns. Rather, they admit to administering a “verbal warning” that was, by Will’s account, accompanied by the threat to hold Will personally accountable for any offending content in future editions of the paper. The HBS administration went on to suggest that the paper steer clear of what Will calls “questionable issues” in the future, Will claims that administrators also urged him to use Harbus writers to bolster Career Services’ image in subsequent issues.
HBS officials have focused on “two words” — “incompetent morons” — as the source of their ire. In fact, they claim that this whole situation could have been avoided if those words were omitted.
Here at Harvard Law School, any student even marginally educated in First Amendment principles knows that statements of pure opinion — such as one’s opinion that those providing an inefficient service are “incompetent morons” — are protected speech. Moreover, anyone who has read a newspaper or magazine lately is also aware that criticism is part of the mission of most publications. Even if that criticism is hurtful, it is protected speech so long as it is not libelously inaccurate. The Harbus’ cartoon does not even come close to that line.
Harbus editors and other students need not defend themselves by claiming the statement was directed at a computer program and not at human beings. The Harbus has an absolute right, as an independent newspaper, to express any opinion that it chooses about anybody — especially public figures on campus — in virtually any language it sees fit.
Business School officials claim that Will and The Harbus violated the school’s “Community Standards.” But these guidelines are totally unclear, establishing no boundary of acceptable conduct. And if they are meant to serve as a de facto speech code — as HBS tried to use them here — they are a disgraceful affront to the concept of academic freedom, and should be eliminated. They certainly should not be wielded against an independent student newspaper.
Universities have a peculiar habit of supporting academic freedom and free speech when it serves interests such as promoting the subversive and radical activities of professors they support. They trumpet the marketplace of ideas until they themselves are subjected to criticism in that market. They recoil at the prospect of supporting speech outside the ambit of their own ideological predilections. American universities were once havens of open discourse. Today, The Harbus incident reinforces the unfortunate truth: that speech within universities today is more restricted than in almost any sphere of American society.
The HBS administration’s action proved that, at least theoretically, it is capable of restricting campus discourse. But no amount of “Community Standards,” speech codes or veiled threats will ever make that decision right.
We are thankful that the Harvard Law School administration has been less heavy-handed in its treatment of campus speech, from recent dealings with The RECORD to support of several recent student protests. But we must not forget that the freedom of students to express themselves through independent means is not a privilege but a right, one that all universities should support.
This incident, like most examples of campus censorship, will be an embarassing one for Harvard Business School. That the HBS administration has shown itself willing to chill student criticism of campus institutions, wielding milquetoast “Community Standards” as its weapon, suggests that its ranks include more “incompetent morons” than even the “Career Dink” cartoon suggested.