Recent calls for Harvard Law School to adopt a racial harassment policy are evidence that even one of the world’s great epicenters of freedom of speech and expression is not immune to censorship. Last week, after months of race-related incidents, members of the Black Law Students Association at Harvard called for the school to adopt what is essentially a speech code intended to prevent future incidents of racial harassment. Academic institutions are dependent on the continual development of iconoclastic beliefs and speech codes like the one currently being mulled over at Harvard chill any outspoken dissent.
In order for the code, which its supporters have only described in very general terms, to be implemented, the law faculty must approve the document. This would take place after the Committee on Healthy Diversity makes its recommendations in the spring. Both the committee and the faculty should reject any proposed code that would limit freedom of speech and expression no matter how pure the intentions of the sponsoring students.
Freedom of speech and expression is one of the most highly prized rights that residents of the United States enjoy. It is a basic principle of this society, and this right applies to all kinds of speech, not just the speech that society or certain movements within academia, view as being politically correct. In fact, the First Amendment would be merely a waste of paper if it only protected mainstream, politically correct speech. Surely the societies that inspired Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and George Orwell’s “1984” did not consider these works politically correct when they were written.
This move to ban offensive speech is especially ironic because Harvard Law graduates such as Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and William Brennan have contributed significantly to First Amendment jurisprudence. On a positive note, current legal scholars at the law school have publicly criticized the proposed speech code. Even Dean Robert C. Clark has expressed his discomfort with the idea of implementing a restrictive policy.
The debate over a speech code is not only relevant at Harvard. In 1988, the University of Michigan drafted a speech code prohibiting speech that could offend other students. The code was ruled unconstitutional in federal court, as it is not the role of educational institutions to prevent their students from feeling offended.
It is frightening that an intellectual center such as the Harvard Law School would even consider prohibiting certain speech. Universities are the worst places to implement such policies that limit the free flow of ideas. The Harvard community, including President Lawrence Summers, the law faculty and students, should heed the advice of their alumnus Justice Holmes when he created the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor by writing, “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”