BY TEJINDER SINGH
Larry Flynt’s visit to HLS incited even more controversy than anticipated. During and since the event, allegations have been flying that Flynt refused a debate on campus and that his refusal taints his commitment to free speech. Some are concerned that Flynt may profit from using the Harvard name in the filming of a documentary about his life. The American Civil Liberties Union of Harvard Law School (ACLU-HLS) believes these claims miss the point of Flynt’s visit, which was to highlight the importance of the freedom to express controversial ideas. Flynt won important legal battles that expanded the reach of the First Amendment, and ACLU-HLS was pleased to invite him to discuss his unique experiences.
Even assuming that Flynt knowingly refused to debate, which is disputed, this controversy is perplexing. Hundreds of speakers visit Harvard annually. Not all of them agree to debates. It does not make sense to equate this refusal with the notion that the speaker has an ulterior motive. Speakers might refuse debates because they don’t believe that the debate will be fair: witness the extensive wrangling over rules for presidential debates. They might refuse because the subjects about which they wish to speak differ from those important to their opponents. For instance, every visiting biologist should not have to discuss intelligent design just because religious groups on campus challenge her to do so. Or speakers simply might not enjoy debating.
While debate is central to the intellectual vitality of our campus, demanding a commitment to an adversarial format from every guest speaker does not serve that function. Instead, it holds speakers’ ideas hostage to the interests and agendas of those who oppose them. The message changes from “come share your ideas if a campus group invites you,” to, “talk only if you are willing to do so on terms dictated by people who disagree with you and dislike you. Otherwise we will question your commitment and call you a liar.” Such a policy would stifle discussion and create a climate of hostility around campus discourse that encourages demagoguery, booing, and hissing, rather than nuanced debate about the issues.
That Flynt’s remarks concerned free speech and that he is more controversial than the average speaker does not mean that he must subject himself to other peoples’ terms. Organizations such as the ACLU-HLS should be able to provide a forum where Larry Flynt can speak to the campus. If students don’t like it, they don’t have to attend. In this case, over 200 students chose to attend Flynt’s talk.
Similarly, other organizations are welcome to criticize Flynt. The ACLU-HLS contacted potential protesters in advance to ensure that they were aware of Flynt’s presence and had time to prepare a response. During the event, ACLU-HLS moderators prioritized the hardest-hitting questions in order to create a balanced discussion about free speech. This event was not an opportunity for Flynt to appear before a crowd of anti-Semitic porn-lovers and be adored for being a jerk. It was a presentation about free speech in our society, given by a pioneer in the field, and the controversy the event generated demonstrates its value.
Concerns about Flynt profiting from the Harvard name are specious. Nobody cared when Jim Cramer came to the same courtroom to film Mad Money. Cramer did not raise legal issues, and he unambiguously profited from the Harvard name. Flynt, on the other hand, discussed the First Amendment, and is not receiving money from the filmmakers. Flynt was invited to speak at Harvard. His presence was approved by a student group, he followed every rule regarding filming on campus, and his talk was germane to issues important to Harvard students. To the extent that giving his presentation also served his interests, it should not upset anybody. This is the epitome of a win-win.
The ACLU-HLS weighed the benefits and drawbacks and determined that having Flynt speak in the form of a speech with a question and answer session was appropriate and educational. Attacks on this decision in the name of preserving free discussion and the sanctity of the Harvard name should be seen for what they are: a nearly transparent veil covering some people’s dislike for Flynt and what he does. The ACLU-HLS welcomes criticism of Flynt’s ideas, but let’s not forget that his visit helped initiate a conversation about the most difficult issues surrounding free speech. Controversial figures like Larry Flynt guarantee that fundamental civil liberties stay at the forefront of our consciousness, and they act as a bulwark against those who would silently sweep freedom away.
Tejinder Singh is a member of the ACLU-HLS.