Letter to the Editor: No double standards for free speech

To the editor:

There is no free lunch in the marketplace of ideas. Whenever we share our thoughts, downside risks are created. Some charge headlong into the breach of public scrutiny, while others prefer the relative safety of anonymity.

Recently, there was an alleged anti-Semitic insult hurled at an Israeli politician by an HLS student. The administration attempted to help the student avoid further embarrassment for his careless remark by censoring footage of the event; the Harvard Law Record assisted in this regard by deleting comments on the original letter that named him.

However, his name eventually did leak out, as is to be expected; the student made the comment in a public forum as the leader of a student organization. He willingly led the vanguard and was cut down by an onslaught of criticism. Such is the gamble we take in expressing an opinion in an open meeting – particularly when that opinion is without a semblance of intellectual merit.

But what if we choose anonymity to express our views? It is frequently the sole option for people who do not believe they will be given a fair hearing – based on their political beliefs, skin color, or other defining characteristic. To quote John Paul Stevens’ opinion in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.”

Several days ago, the authors of the “Royall Asses” blog posted an allegation that students offended by their analysis seriously considered asking the FBI to monitor the blog. Even more shocking than law students seeking the intervention of a federal agency to stamp out dissent, the HLS administration was actively working to expose the names of the blog’s authors – according to one of the two cited emails. Clearly, the authors were right to fear retribution from their own institution; but what was their crime, beyond condemning the actions of their peers?

To someone unaffiliated with Harvard, these events are inexplicable. Are most students at Harvard Law School incapable of civil, rational dialogue? What prompted the country’s top students to so vigorously embrace authoritarianism over liberalism? Why did the administration work so diligently to shield one student, while simultaneously hunting others? The circumstances that have led me to ask these questions represent a cumulative travesty of the highest order.

Efforts to silence criticism do not indicate strength: instead, they indicate the absence of any defensible position. I cannot, and do not, claim to know the motivations of individual administrators, but this much is crystal clear: the HLS administration is a disgrace to the institution’s stated commitment to free speech.

Based on its past conduct, the administration appears quite happy to privilege one set of viewpoints, and students, over another. More insidiously, they do not seem to endorse general principles of free speech: no one is immune to criticism, especially when the opinion in question has a shaky empirical basis; the medium is of the speaker’s own choosing; and authorities should not intervene so transparently for one cause over another.

One may hope that the administration will learn from its past mistakes and actively support the fundamental necessity of free speech in the future, regardless of the hierarchy’s political priors or the consequences for students expressing themselves.

Regrettably, I am not optimistic.

John Alexander

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