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Editorials

Defending Speech When Speaking Is Hard

A billboard truck drove through the streets surrounding Harvard's campus last month, digitally displaying the names and faces of students allegedly affiliated with student groups that signed onto a controversial statement on Hamas' attack on Israel.
A billboard truck drove through the streets surrounding Harvard's campus last month, digitally displaying the names and faces of students allegedly affiliated with student groups that signed onto a controversial statement on Hamas' attack on Israel. By Julian J. Giordano
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

When we speak of defending the right to free speech — the brilliant north star of our Editorial Board — we speak of a commitment to defending speech when speaking freely is hard.

It’s easy to defend speech that echoes orthodox opinions or endorses well-accepted propositions. The true test of commitment occurs when contentious speech meets the flames of disapproval and dissent.

These past months have proven the greatest challenge in recent memory to free speech at Harvard and nationwide, as student statements and advocacy surrounding the Oct. 7 Hamas invasion of Israel and the subsequent Israel-Hamas war have generated massive backlash on our campus and beyond.

Our commitment to free speech does not exempt students from criticism or public opposition. We support a campus where people respectfully debate and question each other’s deepest-held beliefs.

But the actions taken against students recently have morphed from healthy counterspeech to vitriol designed to silence, suppress, and intimidate speakers.

We have seen powerful people — pundits, politicians, preeminent professors — pressure vulnerable young students into silence. Instead of engaging in good faith with students’ views, they have turned our peers into pawns in a game of national politics, scoring cheap points by pillorying the speech of 20-year-olds.

Over social media, hedge fund CEO Bill A. Ackman ’88 demanded Harvard publish the rosters of every student organization that signed a statement authored by the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee, so that he and other CEOs could personally blacklist undergraduates in hiring.

A billboard truck drove around campus, parading the names and faces of students in signatory organizations under a banner proclaiming them “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.” Soon, the truck crawled beyond Cambridge to some students’ hometowns.

The truck was sponsored by conservative media group Accuracy in Media, whose CEO Adam Guillette referred to students affiliated with the statement as “cockroaches” on Fox News — a vile, dehumanizing epithet that denies our peers the basic human dignity they deserve.

Healthy discourse on divisive issues requires mutual respect, no matter the depth of disagreement. These are not principled acts of discourse, but attempts to chase students out of the conversation altogether — they are bullying.

Fearing for their reputations, safety, and professional futures, many students will doubtless feel it’s safer to just keep quiet.

This onslaught against free speech does not only concern undergraduates. Recently, Harvard indefinitely relieved College proctor Elom Tettey-Tamaklo of his duties following his involvement in a confrontation at a pro-Palestinian protest, depriving him suddenly of room and board.

The reasons surrounding Tettey-Tamaklo’s suspension remain unclear — but this is exactly the problem. By its silence, Harvard leaves its affiliates to wonder whether they must choose between advocacy and a roof over their head.

Indeed, faced with the most noxious incursion on collegiate free speech in years, Harvard has abjectly failed to meet the moment.

Harvard has not itself suppressed speech — as peer institutions Brandeis University, Columbia University, and Brown University have done by suspending pro-Palestinian student groups or arresting protesters. But, de facto, the University’s weak-willed waffling has produced similar harm.

Instead of unifying affiliates during this intensely challenging time, University President Claudine Gay has offered — again, and again, and again — statements that seem more intended to shield the institution from political admonition than protect students from material threat.

It is time for the University to defend its students.

Our university — best endowed in the nation, richer than many countries — must use every tool at its disposal to protect its students against this barrage of malice from powerful figures. Harvard should leverage its sprawling network of alumni and supporters to launch a comprehensive response to this assault on free speech.

The initiatives Harvard has taken up thus far, while productive, are incomplete.

We support the University’s advisory group on combating antisemitism in hopes that it will produce tangible support for our many Jewish peers deep in grief and fearing for their safety.

In the same measure and for the same reasons, we call on the University to create a task force against Islamophobia, during a time of Palestinian grief and a steep rise in anti-Muslim bias across the nation. Indeed, on our campus and beyond, many recent efforts to suppress free speech have disproportionately targeted pro-Palestinian voices.

Though the task force to support students experiencing doxxing — which provides doxxed students free licenses for a service to request the removal of personal information online — is a good first step, it does not go nearly far enough. This full-frontal attack on our peers’ reputations demands urgent action from our university, up to and including litigation on behalf of affected students.

For a university — for a democracy — free speech is priceless. Harvard must spare no expense in championing its exercise across higher education.

Should Harvard fail to respond to this assault, it will announce to the world that, with enough money, with enough effort, the powerful can silence its students at will.

Should Harvard fail to defend free speech now, when speaking is hardest, it will invite a future in which we are afraid to speak at all.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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