Whither Goes Free Speech at Harvard?

A recent incident suggests administrators might be more concerned about ugly words than the underlying problems they were intending to satirize

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Harvard University in Boston

Is a satirical flyer distributed a few days ago at Harvard with joking references to anti-semitism, “coloreds,” and sexual assault worth defending? We think so. The protection of free speech is meaningless if what we really mean is “free speech we find appropriate.” When we prohibit or punish certain kinds of statements, even vile ones, then we are protecting speech only insofar as we agree with it or it does not offend us. This is not only a logically inconsistent position, but it is also one that harms our students.

The incident illustrates how badly well-intended policies and actions regarding free speech can lead us away from our core values. The flyer in question was a mock invitation to one of Harvard’s infamous all-male ‘final’ clubs that was distributed under room doors in nine different dorms. Announcing the arrival of a new fictional club emphasizing inclusion, diversity and love (and aptly named “The Pigeon”), the invitation warned: “Jews need not apply. Seriously, no f—- Jews. Coloreds okay.” It also referred to the date rape drug, Rohypnol. Despite the fact that it was satirizing the social clubs’ reputation for exclusivity and abuse of women, a firestorm erupted and an investigation was initiated to find the anonymous authors.

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We tend to think of the 1990s as the height of political correctness on college campuses. But as a new book argues, college students today are more insulated from offensive or unpopular speech, ostensibly for their own and the greater good, than they were twenty years ago. In Unlearning Liberty, author Greg Lukianoff describes a perfect storm of highly-tuned cultural sensitivity, bureaucratic bloat, and fear of litigation that has created a stultifying atmosphere on campuses nationwide where unpopular ideas and offensive language are policed to an absurd extent. Lukianoff’s organization, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, (which includes a number of Harvard faculty on its board) rates campuses that curtail free speech and Harvard currently has the worst rating.

After the flyer incident, the administration issued a statement deploring the use of the “deeply disturbing” language and reminding the community that the invitations did not “demonstrate the level of thoughtfulness and respect we expect at Harvard when engaging difficult issues within our community.” Residential staff were enlisted to ferret out the identity of the satirists and to reach out to students who might have been hurt or offended by the crude statements. National media picked up the story, too, with headlines describing the investigation of “anti-semitic flyers.” Readers posted comments suggesting this was only what was to be expected from bigoted elitists at schools like Harvard.

Astoundingly, there was no public recognition from the university administration that the authors of the fake invitation might have been attempting a stinging rebuke to the very institutional bigotry and sexism that they were taken to task for promoting – a satirical strategy as old as the ancient Greeks and found in virtually every Onion headline on serious topics ranging from child rape to the holocaust. But this is the problem of living in a free-speech surveillance state: otherwise sensible people tie themselves in knots trying to define which speech is acceptable and which is not.

Some students know better. Several commentators on the Harvard Crimson website noted the deep irony of watching an administration that has been silent about the abuses of the all-male clubs (which have included life-threatening drinking games, hazing, and sexual assault) suddenly so concerned about ugly words. To some, it seemed almost Kafkaesque to think that the satirists (who might actually be jews, blacks, or women, though that shouldn’t matter) were to be “investigated” when the social ills that motivated the crude satire were being ignored. It seemed like people were contemplating the senseless action of shooting the messenger, all in the name of keeping students safe.

Our hyper-vigilance about campus speech does the opposite of ensuring “safety.” It infantilizes students and tells them that any time they hear something that makes them uncomfortable, no matter how distasteful it may be, they have reason not only to be offended, but also to restrict the speech of others so that they can avoid their unpleasant feelings.  This is not good pedagogy.

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For one thing, it denies students the opportunity to learn to think for themselves — an essential life skill without which most humans would be adrift. In the recent Harvard case, it also literally blinds authorities to more pressing problems for our students, such as the sexist and dangerous behaviors that still go unchecked behind closed doors.

Unfortunately, many well-intentioned policies to foster “civility” are counter-productive. Leaving aside the fact that some unpopular ideas may, in fact, be good ones, the real problem is that colleges are increasingly mistrustful that students have the analytic skills and moral character to decide for themselves. Paradoxically, this mistrust is the opposite of educational because it strips students of their own agency in vetting ideas in the public sphere. Even worse, when we get bogged down in concerns about safeguarding people’s feelings, we can lose sight of much more important values that protect all of us, first among them the right to think and speak freely.

If our brightest and most capable young adults can’t be trusted to think for themselves, who can?  And if our greatest American universities won’t protect words, who will?

MOREOur Concern Over Indecency Is Misguided


As a Harvard alum, Pfohoser, and one who would not have been invited to The Pigeon, I applaud the the co-masters of Pforzheimer House for authoring such a great piece.  If we can't recognize satire when it is so blatantly obvious then it is clear that we need to have a serious discussion about political correctness on campus.



I tend to agree with you! However, from what I'm gathering about the "Satire" in question is that it seems to be in very poor taste. It's unfortunate that we've come to this point, but satire almost has to be labeled as satire or it can all too often be taken seriously. I've seen so many blog posts that make outrageously hateful comments and they ARE serious. In my opinion this fire has been fanned by the so called "Tea Party Patriots" and the Grover Norquists who have come out publicly saying they want to see every Statehouse in the nation become places of extreme partisan bickering. Well, they got their wish, especially here in WI with Scott Walker and his ALEC following legislators! It makes me sick to see what's happened to our state which for most of the 20th Century had a reputation as a place for good government. Now the govmint haters want NO government. It's truly a travesty.

HollysHere like.author.displayName 1 Like

Free speech is under fire everywhere. From the halls of Harvard to a blogger being sued for exposing a violent gang rape in Steubenville, Ohio. While there are true cases of online defamation, it seems that we have become a society of butt hurt web users who have attorneys on speed dial. This may be a gross over simplification, but if you dont like what is being said... simply click the little x at the top of your page.


If you want to experience REAL Freedom of Speech, Come to WI! Here you can witness people being arrested daily for exercising their First Amendment Rights. http://youtu.be/jSNPqO2XfLQ

You can also hear State Legislators threaten the University of Wisconsin System with spending cuts because they closed a few classrooms on the Madison Campus when President Obama visited Madison drawing a crowd of 30K.  A fact check would reveal the classes were reassigned to other rooms or closed by the SECRET SERVICE! Harvard, Quit Whining!


Sometimes holding a particular position, especially one as crucial as the head of Harvard house, means considering how your words might unnecessarily negatively impact students' perception of the very people they look to for guidance, and council. As a student I am disappointed, though not entirely surprised.

Karthi.Sivaraman like.author.displayName 1 Like

Whither tolerance? Whither free speech? Where did all this debate go when the right and mighty Harvard cancelled courses of a visiting faculty Dr. Subramaniam Swamy (in economics) for an opinion he wrote about political realities in India (and published in India)? Or, does this follow a particular trend? If one abuses Jews or coloreds (even for harmless fun) it is OK and should be covered under freedom of speech and the first amendment. However, when one calls the bluff of islamists and islamic terrorists and their behaviour world over - political correctness is paramount and one should exercise 'reasonable restraint'!!

One cannot have the 'free speech' cake and eat it too. Either you support free speech for all, or you don't support it at all. The boundaries of 'free speech' cannot be drawn depending on who is at the receiving end.

I am hoping the erudite scholars at Harvard would stand up for the 'real' free speech and not their political views masquerading as a right to free speech.



I'm incredibly disturbed to see this article as well as the support it is receiving. Yes, the invitation had an obviously satirical tone, but that does not excuse the language within it. Speaking as a Jew, I was upset to hear about the presence of these invitations on campus. Speaking as a member of a final club, I was equally upset to think that someone would use my own ethnic group to satirize final clubs when I (and any of my Jewish friends) have never felt unwelcome in such social settings. Speaking as a Harvard undergraduate, I feel strongly that it is the administration's role to protect the student body and to make us feel that we are living and learning in as safe and welcoming of an environment as possible. To me, that overrides the constitutional laws of America. Like it or not, we are in a bubble in college, and I don't believe that using the reasoning of free speech is a worthy accusation of administrative missteps. Had the administration not responded quickly and decisively, I would have felt uncomfortable in my home and in my classes, and I find it somewhat disconcerting that both of you hold administrative positions at the college if you're willing to neglect my comfort and safety in order to preserves someone else's luxury to say whatever idiotic thought comes to their mind. Bottom line: Harvard is a school. It is meant to TEACH students about how to be better scholars, citizens, and people. Part of that teaching means informing students when something that is said is wrong and hurtful. I appreciate that other Harvard administrators, unlike yourselves, are trying to educate the community before we all go out into the world and become entirely and individually accountable for our actions.

elchristakis like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@hvd13 Thank you for sharing your perspective, which I appreciate, but I think you have far too much faith in the grown-ups and, paradoxically, not enough faith in yourself. Our role as educators is generally not to tell you what to think, or to tell you what is right or wrong (except in really exceptional cases which we might debate but which might include things like a public incitement to murder someone etc.) Our role, I believe, is to help you develop the critical thinking skills and personal character to stand up for yourself and for others. Living in a bubble is a dangerous place to be. It may feel safe, for now, but history shows that today's comfort and safety can quickly become something entirely different. It really depends on who is claiming to "protect" your interests. One person's comfort could be another person's discomfort. (For example, many students are made uncomfortable by the final club system of which you are a part.) Are you so sure that your beliefs will always be in perfect alignment with Harvard's administration that you are willing to cede control to these authorities? Of course campuses should be welcoming places for all. (Who would disagree with that statement?) But who decides what 'welcoming and safe" means? We can do our best to foster civility, of course, but there is no way to guarantee everyone's comfort at all times. It's simply not possible. And even if it were -- if we suddenly decided to create a dystopian community like in the Giver, with no ugly feelings -- at what cost??Is that the goal of a Harvard education? To protect you from discomfort? I'm not sure it is. I think it's the experience of discomfort that sometimes helps us to grow. Good pedagogy is not the mere transfer of information and values from one brain to the next. It's about giving students the opportunity to struggle with ideas and feelings. That is far more educational than "informing students when something that is said is wrong and hurtful." This kind of struggle may not always be fun but it's not a threat. I think the real threat is thinking it's okay to let others take control of your spinal cord. Good luck with your studies and your transition to post-college life. 

SarahSiskind like.author.displayName 1 Like

@elchristakis @hvd13 ^^This is the epitome of awesomeness. I'm going to give everyone at Pfoho a high five next time I'm quad bound just for having excellent masters.

h2015 like.author.displayName 1 Like

As a current sophomore at Harvard and a liberal Jew, thank you for this article. It's always annoying when Harvard responds to real issues with pre-formulated fluff rather than really addressing them. Anyone with half a brain can see that these flyers were satirizing final clubs, and to see them as "offensive" to Jews or blacks is frankly ridiculous. Satire draws attention to real issues, and in that sense these flyers were definitely successful satire. The administration's admonition of these flyers for the sake of making people like me feel more "comfortable" is completely misguided, and was probably a stock response sent out without much thought. The real issue is not these flyers, but the negative effect that final clubs have on social life for most students at Harvard. For once, I would like Harvard to respond to a student concern without shrugging it off with some generic and politically-correct statement. 

SarahSiskind like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

Phenomenal article! I have been overjoyed with my Harvard experience but my greatest disappointment has been the relative lack of classical liberalism in debate on campus. As well as a very poor understanding of satire. 

Whatever happened to "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it"?

The Crimson probably jumped the gun in attacking the flyers in their haste to defame the Lampoon. Oops! I mean 'anonymous.' 


Very thoughtful, useful writing as always. I'm with you in thinking that the College's apparent desire to impose official punishments on whoever made the flyers is inappropriate. But I don't think that an official statement condemning hateful language is itself inappropriate in this situation (except for the arguably hypocritical overtones you rightly mention). Seems to me that respecting a right to speech means refusing to punish abuses of that right, but shouldn't mean accepting such abuses without comment. And while I'm with you in interpreting the flyers as not particularly offensive given their obviously satirical intent, I also can't say for sure that I'd feel the same way if I were black or jewish. I'm interested in hearing more from people (and there seem to be plenty on facebook and thecrimson.com) who say "even if it is satire, it makes me feel threatened."

elchristakis like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

@SeanCuddihy Thanks for your thoughtful response. But do we really want to set the standard that we should issue an official comment when a student might potentially feel "threatened"? Who gets to decide what's abusive and which abuses merit comment? Do we comment on all of these potential threats and hurt feelings, just in case? The words of authority figures, like college deans, carry great power and meaning; such power should be applied very judiciously. I think in the great majority of cases, it's much better to let students - who are, after all, adults! - wrestle with these ideas in the intellectual marketplace without having them vetted by others. Otherwise universities gradually become sanitized cultures closed to healthy provocation and challenge. This is dangerous ground - far more so, in my view - than the risk of being offended or hurt by mere words. Satire has always been an incredibly powerful tool for the powerless to have a voice. Offensive humor can be a useful engine of social change. (It can also be a guilty pleasure.) We will only realize what we've lost when young people have become passive little lemmings. Then, it's too late! Thanks again for commenting.