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Harvard Tests Limits of Free Speech with Provocative Speakers

As students protest "odious" speakers, Harvard’s free speech club says it wants to encourage free speech from all ideological viewpoints.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   18-04-2017
Harvard Open Campus Initiative members with clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson
(fourth from left) after his lecture. (Photo: Conor Healy)

At Harvard University, the newly established Open Campus Initiative — dubbed the free speech club — is going out on a limb to court right-wing speakers who are provocative, perhaps even downright offensive. It has booked controversial political scientist Charles Murray, for a speaking engagement next semester and hosted another campus pariah, University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson.
 
Protests erupted outside the Science Center in Harvard as Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychology professor, outlined his criticism of transgender people, arguing that the idea that biological sex and gender were independent quantities was “wrong.” The student-run club spent over $1,000 on beefing up security for Peterson’s talk, which provoked a backlash from LGBT students. In addition to upsetting the LGBT community, Peterson took a paw-swipe at women, gender studies and activism.
 
Speaking to an audience of mostly white men, Peterson said he thought college campuses were “overrun, in large part, with disciplines that have, in my estimation, no valid reason to exist.”
 
“I think disciplines like women’s studies should be defunded,” said Peterson.
 
 “We’re causing full time, destructive employment for people who are causing nothing but trouble. What they promote has zero intellectual credibility,” Peterson told the audience.
 
Students at Harvard slammed the Open Campus Initiative for courting "odious" speakers, arguing that it gave a platform to "hate speech." They said LGBT students who are vulnerable and face enough discrimination on a daily basis don't have to be targets of a "free speech experiment" at Harvard.
 
"Through the creation of the Open Campus Initiative, it seems like we are moving backwards rather than moving forward," wrote Laura S. Veira-Ramirez and Jessenia Class in a stinging editorial published in "The Harvard Crimson."
 
"Having to constantly defend one’s own identity and stand up for what’s right is absolutely draining. Having to constantly justify your own existence is exhausting. Is it asking too much to allow students to exist without constantly worrying about which speaker will be the next one to publicly invalidate their existence? Is it too much to ask that Harvard not be complicit in this charade?"
 
The editorial went on to say that Harvard couldn't afford to test the limits of free speech: "A very clear line already exists; you are welcome to your own opinion so long as your opinion does not threaten another person’s existence. The line has been crossed here."
 
The Open Campus Initiative says it is a “non-partisan political group,” but is starting out with a line-up of libertarian and conservative-leaning speakers because they represent viewpoints that are "repressed in the current campus environment." The club said it didn't always agree with all the views presented by the speakers.
 
"Some people have labeled us a hate group, but I think the majority of students at Harvard are pleased that we’re introducing some ideological diversity to campus,” Conor Healy, a sophomore at Harvard and head of the Open Campus Initiative, told "The Daily Beast."
 
Healy, who is gay describes himself as a “moderate libertarian” who has a distaste for government interference in people’s personal lives.
 
“Most of the community wants to hear from the people we’re inviting, they want to critique them, ask them hard questions, and they’re willing to be convinced,” Healy said. “If they’re not convinced, their perception of the truth can be reinforced by the opposing view.”
 
Mary Maxwell, a junior at Harvard, took the middle ground: “One of the few places in our society where we can really engage in adult conversations about explosive issues are college campuses. Doesn’t mean we agree with them. On the contrary, the more we shine the light on and speak about the issues we find offensive, the more we put them to the test."
 
Next up, the Open Campus Initiative has booked political scientist Charles Murray. The Southern Poverty Law Center has branded Murray a “white supremacist” for his book "The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life." The book which was published in 1994 promoted the view that the historical disparity in IQ test scores between black people and white people could indicate the genetic, intellectual superiority of one race over another. The book of course, conveniently ignored alternative explanations for the score gap, including the many educational and socioeconomic advantages historically enjoyed by whites.
 
"Murray's interpretation of data — white people might be inherently smarter than black people — is flat-out wrong, not to mention wildly offensive. It is fair to argue that his writing is motivated by racism," noted "The Washington Post," as Murray was swarmed by a mob last week at Middlebury College that disrupted his talk.
 

Uttara Choudhury is a writer for Forbes India and The Wire. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.

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