Yesterday I reported on a new policy of Harvard University that would seem to have inimical effects on free speech: it mandates that Harvard ensure “neutral moderators” for events deemed controversial by the Dean of Students’ office. Further, that Office now requires a month’s notice in advance for controversial speakers as well as “VIPs” and “high profile” speakers. I argued that this would have a chilling effect on speech, likely to make students averse to inviting controversial speakers, who of course are often on the Right.
I wasn’t aware that since 2017, as documented in this article from the Harvard Crimson (click on screenshot), there has been an “Open Campus Initiative” that deliberately invites controversial speakers to campus, though not all of them are conservatives or people espousing anti-“woke” viewpoints.
From the article:
Recently formed, the Open Campus Initiative espouses “support for freedom of thought, speech and association.” So far, the group has invited widely criticized right-wing speakers to campus, though its president Conor Healy ’19 said they hope to host liberal speakers as well.
Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto who claims that gender nonconformity threatens free speech, will come to campus next week.
The group has also invited Charles A. Murray ’65, a conservative political scientist who has drawn criticism for his work alleging intellectual inequality among racial groups, to speak in the fall. Murray drew national attention earlier this year when a campus protest at Middlebury College disrupted his speaking appearance there and briefly turned violent.
But of course students at Harvard have objected to this:
Already, though, students have started to criticize the Open Campus Initiative and its choice to invite Peterson to speak at Harvard, arguing that giving a platform to his stances constitutes hate speech.
“If you substituted any other protected class of people for the trans people he’s talking about, it would be appalling, and the only reason it’s not appaling is because we allow violence against trans people to be normalized,” Lily M. Velona ’18 said.
Peterson has publicly stated that he will not use pronouns other than “he” and “she” and actively opposes Canada Bill C-16, which aims to extend the Canadian Human Rights Code to protect people from discrimination on the basis of “gender identity and gender orientation.”
Helene Lovett ’19 is organizing a group of students to create a response against the event, and although the group has not finalized any plans, they felt the event crossed a line.
“Personally I think a ‘shut it down’ attitude is just going to play right into this rhetoric, but I want to call this out, it’s completely unacceptable,” Lovett said.
After Peterson spoke at University of Toronto campus in October, several transgender and black students reported receiving threatening and hateful messages, which both Lovett and Velona said worries them.
“When you’re inciting violence, whether intentional or not, it’s not just an intellectual debate anymore,” Lovett said.
Velona said they believed that freedom of speech was one thing and debating transgender people’s humanity was another.
“It normalizes the idea that trans people are less than other humans; it normalizes the idea that we can refuse to acknowledge the personhood, by putting it up for debate, of an incredibly vulnerable group of people.” Velona said.
Well, no, Peterson doesn’t incite violence. His presence may have inspired people to write abusive letters to others, which is an unacceptable act on the writers’ part, but that’s not on Peterson’s head. So many opponents of “hate speech” (and of course Peterson’s speech, whether or not construed as “hate speech” is also legal speech in the US), use instances like these “threatening or hateful messages” as reasons to ban speech. No, Peterson’s appearance at Harvard was not “crossing the line”. Note, too, Lovett and Velona’s claim that Peterson is not participating in an “intellectual debate” because a few miscreants sent hateful messages after his appearance. That’s another dumb rationale for trying to deplatform Peterson (he wasn’t deplatformed).
Velona also claims that “debating transgender people’s humanity” is NOT an exercise in free speech. Excuse me, but that’s not what Peterson does, and what few people do. I doubt that the Open Campus Initiative would invite people who claimed that transgender people weren’t human. The argument is about pronouns and things like sports participation and bathrooms. None of that, no matter how hateful you construe it, is a denial of anyone’s humanity.
Two years ago, the faculty advisor to the Open Campus Initiative was Harry R. Lewis, former Dean of the College. Now, however, it’s Steve Pinker. And Pinker, exercised by Harvard’s new free-speech code, objected in a letter he just sent to six Harvard administrators. I reproduce the letter with permission, and have eliminated the names and email addresses of the administrators:
From: Pinker, Steven
To: [Six administrators with names redacted]
Subject: DSO policy on controversial VIP speakers
Dear [Names redacted],
As a faculty advisor to our students’ Open Campus Initiative, and a “controversial” “VIP” speaker myself, I’d like to express my opposition to the new DSO policy requiring student organizations to provide a one-month advance notice and a DSO-selected “neutral” moderator for such speakers. As such I endorse the Crimson’s editorial of September24 on this policy. Though I applaud the guide’s stated commitment to free speech, and policies to prevent disruption and violence at campus events, the vague policy would have the effect of stigmatizing and interfering with the efforts of our students to expose our community to new ideas (since all new ideas are “controversial,” and many are proposed by “VIP” speakers) and thereby advance their (and our) education. I suggest that any such guideline should be precisely and narrowly stated to prevent disruptions, and not grant arbitrary powers to the DSO control and interfere with our students’ efforts to bring speakers to Harvard.
Johnstone Family Professor
Dept. of Psychology
I agree with this, of course, and will be writing my own letters. I don’t mind giving links to the two people I’ll write to: Harvard’s President Lawrence Bacow (his own talk at Harvard was disrupted just this year), and the Dean of Students Rakesh Khurana. If you’re a Harvard alum and want to keep speech on campus fully free, by all means write to them as well (alums get special attention: it’s Harvard, Jake!).