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Free Speech Is Dead at Harvard University

Harvard University, a once-esteemed institution, came in a humiliating dead last in their Free Speech Survey.

Widener Library, Harvard University 2009. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Widener Library, Harvard University 2009

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonprofit group committed to protecting free speech, and College Pulse last week released their annual report on the state of free speech on American college campuses.

For the report, 55,102 students were surveyed across 254 colleges and universities over a six-month period from January to June.

Harvard University, a once-esteemed institution, came in a humiliating dead last in their Free Speech Survey.

As an alumna of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, I’m not the least bit surprised by FIRE’s survey results. In my time on campus, I quickly came to realize I would be “canceled” if I shared my opinion, for example, that there are just two genders or defended capitalism or the principles of democracy.

The survey weighed several factors, including student perceptions of outside speakers and the extent to which disruptive conduct impacts free expression, in an effort to gauge a school’s receptivity to a range of perspectives and ideas.

Based on that information, schools received a standardized “speech climate rating” ranging from 0 to 100, with 100 being the least speech restrictive score and 0 being the most restrictive.

On that basis, Harvard University received a score of 0.00, which FIRE actually rounded up from minus-10.68 to rank it on a positive scale.

Harvard students had an alarmingly high “success” rate in deplatforming speakers with whom they disagree. An analysis of the sheer volume of cancellation campaigns, along with their success rates, proves Harvard’s negative score was well-earned: Student protesters effectively canceled events and at least three faculty members were terminated, in part due to student objections to their politics.

One of these professors, David Kane, was fired after hundreds of students organized and signed a petition demanding his removal because of an op-ed he wrote about how the acceptance criteria of Williams College favored black applicants.

What does all of this say about one of the “leading” academic institutions in our country and a standout within the Ivy League?

A) That it has become an echo chamber for a singular ideology, sympathetic exclusively to the Left?

B) That teaching students how to think has been replaced by teaching students what to think?

C) That a population of entitled 18- to 22-year-olds has one of the most distinguished institutions of higher education in this country retreating from its mission of advancing new ideas and promoting enduring knowledge?

D) That its embrace of diversity extends only to skin color and gender identities, but not to diversity of thought?

Or E) All of the above?

It appears Harvard administrators don’t understand the importance of free speech in civil discourse or its centrality to the principles of democracy.

To many, it seems obvious that the First Amendment must be protected at all costs. If the freedom to openly express and exchange ideas and opinions is quashed, what separates a university from a totalitarian regime?

Perhaps that is what Harvard has already become, with several other prominent institutions of higher “education” not far behind.

Far from the beacon of learning and truth it once was, Harvard’s decision to permit and, in some cases, encourage censorship is an academic abomination.

If institutions want to produce students who can think critically and productively contribute to civil society, they must appreciate the importance of free speech and understand the value of diverse perspectives. Central to that acknowledgement is the realization that speech serves its highest purpose when it invites dissent and respectful disagreement.

When events are canceled, scholars sanctioned, and speakers deplatformed, not only are schools denying the censored party’s right to free speech, they are also infringing on the audience’s right to listen and engage in constructive dialogue.

The overwhelming presence of students who feel emboldened to shout down those with whom they disagree signals more than a failure to teach decorum and respect. It creates an environment of censorship and intolerance that flies in the face of the basic freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution and is antithetical to what used to be the goal of education.

For all of its lip service to diversity, Harvard is the least ideologically diverse environment I could ever have imagined in this country and the most intolerant of divergent viewpoints.

Scholars are sanctioned for the biological crime of being white and male. Speakers are bullied and heckled—if they are even permitted to come to campus at all. Free speech is hijacked by a need to create “safe spaces.” Divergent views are labeled “hate speech.” 

Far from an institution of higher learning, Harvard has been exposed for the academic fraud it has truly become. If Harvard wants to reinstate its status as a top institution, it must stop yielding ground to individuals and groups that seek to stifle opposing viewpoints and recommit to its educational obligation to uphold the unfettered expression of ideas on campus.

Anna Low is an assistant with Heritage Action for America, the grassroots arm of The Heritage Foundation. She holds a master’s degree in education policy and analysis from Harvard University. This first appeared in the Daily Signal

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Anna Low is an assistant with Heritage Action for America, the grassroots arm of The Heritage Foundation. She holds a master’s degree in education policy and analysis from Harvard University.

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