Harvard dean warns about criticism of school, prompts free speech concerns

George Washington Law professor Jonathan Turley takes issue with the “anti-free speech movement that has swept over higher education,” pointing to a recent op-ed from Harvard University as a prime example.

Lawrence Bobo, the Dean of Social Science, expressed a desire for “calmer times on campus” following the recent anti-Israel occupations that swept college campuses and even involved faculty members. In contrast, Turley, in his critique, highlighted Bobo’s view that criticizing university leaders or school policies is now viewed as “outside the bounds of acceptable professional conduct.”

“A faculty member’s right to free speech does not amount to a blank check to engage in behaviors that plainly incite external actors — be it the media, alumni, donors, federal agencies, or the government — to intervene in Harvard’s affairs,”  the dean wrote. “Along with freedom of expression and the protection of tenure comes a responsibility to exercise good professional judgment and to refrain from conscious action that would seriously harm the University and its independence.”

He applied the well-known “crowded theater” analogy in his argument.

“But many faculty at Harvard enjoy an external stature that also opens to them much broader platforms for potential advocacy,” Bobo said. “Figures such as Raj Chetty ’00, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jill Lepore, or Steven A. Pinker have well-earned notoriety that reaches far beyond the academy.”

“Would it simply be an ordinary act of free speech for those faculty to repeatedly denounce the University, its students, fellow faculty, or leadership? The truth is that free speech has limits — it’s why you can’t escape sanction for shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” he continued.

The remarkable factor here is that Bobo is responding to radical leftists, not those right of center. But his call for more responsible speech treads on the sacred right to free speech.

Turley found the theater analogy “most galling,” arguing that Bobo is claiming “the entire university is now a crowded theater and criticizing the university leadership is a cry of ‘Fire.'”

“I have an entire chapter in The Indispensable Right that addresses the fallacies surrounding this line out of the Holmes opinion. It is arguably the most damaging single line ever written by a Supreme Court justice in the area of free speech,” the law professor wrote. “I have previously written about the irony of liberals adopting the analogy, which was used to crack down on socialists and dissenters on the left.”

He noted that “most Harvard faculty members have been conspicuously silent as [other] colleagues were targeted by cancel campaigns,” adding:

As faculties effectively purged their ranks of conservative or Republican members, the silence was deafening. Others either supported such campaigns or justified them. Notably, over 75 percent of the Harvard faculty identify as “liberal” or “very liberal.”

Then the Gaza protests began and some of these same faculty found themselves the targets of mobs. Suddenly, free speech became an urgent matter to address. Fortunately for these liberal professors, the free speech community is used to opportunistic allies. Where “fair weather friends” are often ridiculed, free speech relies on “foul-weather friends,” those who suddenly see the need to protect a diversity of opinions when they feel threatened.

Rejecting the notion that the First Amendment applies only to the government, not private companies or institutions, Turley said it “was never the exclusive definition of free speech.”

“Free speech is viewed by many of us as a human right; the First Amendment only deals with one source for limiting it,” he concluded. “Free speech can be undermined by private corporations as well as government agencies. This threat is even greater when politicians openly use corporations and universities to achieve indirectly what they cannot achieve directly.”

“Dean Bobo’s desire for ‘calmer times’ would come at too high a price for free speech as well as Harvard.”

Tom Tillison

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