Reclaim Harvard Law Removes Critical Posters, Stirring Debate Over Academic Freedom

3L Bill Barlow puts up posters accusing Reclaim HLS of denying speech to students. Reclaim HLS later took down the posters.

For the last several weeks, the walls of the protestor-occupied “Belinda Hall” have been covered with messages from Reclaim HLS, a coalition of students seeking institutional change at the Law School. But on Monday, there was a new message—one equating the movement with Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, claiming that both Trump and Reclaim are anti-free speech.

The signs were posted by third-year student Bill Barlow, who has been a vocal opponent of perceived censorship by Reclaim HLS. Barlow believes some of the protestors’ demands impinge on academic freedom and stifle dissent—a conviction this incident reaffirmed for him.

Shortly after Barlow taped up his signs, he sat down to discuss his message with protestors—a conversation he referred to as “tense but civil.” Later that afternoon, members from Reclaim HLS removed Barlow’s critical posters. And shortly thereafter, Barlow received an email from the Dean of Students Office requesting an informational meeting with Dean of Students Marcia Sells.

Because of Harvard’s status as a federally tax-exempt educational institution under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, it is required to refrain from engaging, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for elected public office. The Trump sign, Dean Sells explained to Barlow, might run afoul of these obligations. Barlow sought guidance about his rights to post contrasting signs without reference to political candidates throughout Belinda Hall, and reports that he was told he had a right to post a similar message that did not reference Trump.

Dean Sells issued a statement to the Record reaffirming Harvard Law’s commitment to free speech.

“In recent weeks, faced with questions of pressing importance to our community, we have respected the extraordinary use of space in the WCC lounge as a place for the expression of views through, for example, the display of posters and fliers and the holding of teach-ins and the like,” Dean Sells told the Record. “The University’s and Law School’s commitment to freedom of speech and academic freedom, however, requires that those who use shared space for expressive purposes must respect the rights of others to do the same, including those who disagree with them. These values of free exchange are essential to an academic community.  They are also central to the legal profession, which at its core requires debate and discussion.  We expect all members of this community to uphold these values.”

But unlike Dean Sells, AJ Clayborne, a third-year student and a Reclaim HLS organizer who was one of several students who has removed Barlow’s posters, said that anything posted in Belinda Hall must be approved by Reclaim first.

“Belinda Hall has been reclaimed by Reclaim HLS for the purpose of creating an anti-racist environment for all and, accordingly, has a new governing body to protect that cause in a way that the institution’s existing structure, including DOS, has not,” Clayborne stated. “Anything that violates anti-racist values has no place in Belinda Hall.”

After learning about Harvard’s 501(c)(3) obligations, which could bar signs referencing Trump, Barlow created new signs void of political content and hung them up on Tuesday. One read “Reclaim Harvard Law= [Censored by Reclaim Harvard Law].” Those posters were also removed from Belinda Hall. The group held a vote with its “plenary committee,” described above by Clayborne, to decide that only approved signs could be posted. They voted to deny Barlow’s signs.

Barlow said that one protestor told him that if he wanted to post a sign, he could attend Reclaim’s plenary meetings and vote with them about whether or not certain speech should be approved. But he could not, he was told, post a sign without prior approval from Reclaim.

Clayborne said the removal of these signs, too, was justified.

“Reclaim HLS also removed those posters [not referencing a candidate for elected office],” Clayborne said. “Reclaim HLS operates as a democracy and has consistently invited all students who share in its anti-racist mission to participate in its democratic body. We have a process for approving signage in Belinda Hall that was established by majority vote.”

This voting process, Clayborne recalled, was implemented the night after the Trump posters were hung.

Not all supporters of Reclaim approve the removal of Barlow’s signs. Mark Hamlin, a third-year student who expressed his support for Reclaim HLS in The Record’s #HLSUntaped series and who also witnessed the incident over the Trump posters, questioned whether removing Barlow’s fliers was the right move.

“Just because I disagree with Mr. Barlow’s comparison (I do) or find it offensive doesn’t justify censoring it, at least in my mind,” Hamlin said. “Furthermore, given the message Mr. Barlow has consistently tried to convey—that those opposed to the Reclaim Harvard movement feel pressured into silence—I felt like removing the flier only reinforced this message. This was especially so as I felt like the grounds for removal [of the first flier referencing Trump] was largely based on pretext. If the flier was meant as an endorsement for Trump, then ‘=’ implies it was also meant to endorse the Reclaim Harvard movement, which is clearly not the case.”

Hamlin suggested that counter-messaging might have been a more effective alternative to censorship. He went on to note that these are difficult decisions and ultimately have not affected his support for the movement.

Movement leaders dispute concerns over its responsiveness to opposing voices.

“Reclaim HLS has never targeted students at Harvard Law School,” Clayborne said. “We invite discussion in Belinda Hall rather than defiling of the space, but we suggest that these voices make the institution the target of their dissent and simply present ideas on how to make it more inclusive. Given student testimony and administration’s admission, we will not legitimize a dispute on whether racism is a problem at Harvard Law School—that is clear.”

On Wednesday, Barlow tried a third time to hang posters throughout the Hall. In this round, the message was one explicitly about free speech: “Reclaim Harvard Law= Suppression of Free Speech.” And again, protestors took them down.

“Reclaim Harvard Law has removed over 50 anti-Reclaim posters from the lounge area. This is absolutely unacceptable and a violation of the ethics of free speech that we uphold here at [HLS],” Barlow said.

A summary of Harvard’s Policy on Campaign and Political Activity is available here. The Law School’s Protest and Dissent Guidelines are available here


Update 1: A few students have told us that they posted signs in the lounge that were removed today, after the original version of this story was published. Josh Craddock ’18 posted a sign that read “[t]his message has been censored by #ReclaimHLS.” According to Craddock, the sign was removed by 5:30 PM. The Record will follow-up and post updates to this story as new information comes in.

Update 2: The Record has received video of students moving signs critical of Reclaim from their original locations to a designated area on a wall for “privileged” voices. The incidents reportedly took place after Dean Minow’s email to the community. The signs in the video are being moved against the vocal protests of a group of students.

Note: We have decided against publishing any non-consensual videos of law students engaged in moving or tearing down signs. Students with questions about the rationale for this decision can email the editor-in-chief, Michael Shammas, at mshammas@jd16.law.harvard.edu. Before emailing, however, they are encouraged to read his published rationale.

Update 3: The Record has received word that some Reclaim posters were defaced Saturday morning with the words “no censorship.” Send tips if you have information about this to editor@hlrecord.org. We have also received word that the Harvard Law administration ordered Reclaim posters posted outside of the lounge to be taken down.

*Future updates to this story will take place in new news pieces.*

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