Monday, June 19, 2017

Censorship 101 - Crimson Style

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” -- Evelyn Beatrice Hall, British writer (1868-1956)

Censorship 101 - Crimson Style
Commentary by Sanford D. Horn
June 19, 2017

Hate speech, provided it does not incite violence, is still free speech, except at Harvard University. At Harvard, free speech and expression is costly - to the tune of about a dozen rising freshmen being told their First Amendment rights end at the front gates of the ivory towers of the Cambridge, MA campus, as their acceptances were rescinded.

Apparently the First Amendment does not include social media postings that were determined to be offensive by a faceless, nameless committee that Harvard won’t divulge. On what has been called a “private Facebook page,” according to the Wall Street Journal, this particular group of students, posted sexually explicit messages, along with others mocking the Holocaust, joking about pedaphilia, and child abuse.

There is no question that the posts were vile, distasteful, unsavory, and repugnant; yet, no laws were violated. These students, heretofore previously on their way to matriculate at Harvard this fall, find themselves on the outside looking in, whose potential notoriety could prevent them from landing at any campus, should fight the rescinding of their acceptances.

This is a classic example of the slippery slope so bone chilling, it makes George Orwell’s 1984, look like Dr. Seuss. This is precisely why the United States has a First Amendment - protecting the right to speak one’s mind. It’s still not against the law to say/post offensive comments, and while Harvard also has the right to deny admission to any applicant it chooses, to do so because of opinions with which a committee does not agree, is disturbing.

Brilliant jurist Alan Dershowitz, who has a 53 year relationship with Harvard, and said as a private institution, Harvard is not “technically bound by the First Amendment.” He then quickly added that the rescinding of acceptances is “over-punishment and Draconian…. Harvard has committed itself to following the First Amendment and I think this violates the spirit, if not the letter of the First Amendment.”

How many students on campus, be it Harvard or anywhere else, think the same thoughts that were posted on this private Facebook page? (Although how a Facebook page is private in and of itself is flummoxing.) Perhaps the admissions committee did not vet these applicants carefully enough; but that’s on Harvard, not the students.

What will be the next set of opinions to keep people from the hallowed ivy of Harvard? Perhaps the committee will deny admission to those making disparaging remarks about Boston or the Kennedy family. And, this isn’t even about denying admission, it’s about rescinding admission from students already deemed “acceptable” for Harvard.

One cannot shield oneself from hurtful, offensive, or even viscerally disturbing images and words unless shuttered within their homes sans print, audio, visual media and even music lyrics. Nor does one have the right not to be offended.

The school claims it denies admission based upon honesty, maturity, and moral character. Wow - talk about a broad based set of criteria; and criteria decided upon by whom? The students in question were certainly honest in their despicable postings.

As for maturity, who defines maturity? Is maturity based upon whether or not the young students agree with the opinions of the older admissions committee? Does age alone define maturity? Is a 60-year-old automatically more mature than an 18-year-old simply based upon the numbers?

With regard to moral character, who is the arbiter of that definition? What if the admissions committee does not support gay marriage. Should students who do, be denied admission? Or should students who are married to a same-sex partner be denied admission? Is it morally acceptable to be anti-gay, but not anti-Semitic? Is it morally acceptable to oppose pedaphilia but not beastiality? By whose morals is Harvard basing their subjectivity?

In the Supreme Court case Matal v. Tam decided on Monday, June 19, the justices ruled unanimously, 8-0, that trademarks cannot be  banned simply because they are offensive. (Rookie Justice Neil Gorsuch, not on the court when the case was heard, did not participate.)

Banning an offensive trademark “offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito.

Alito also wrote that restricting “speech expressing ideas that offend… strikes at the heart of the First Amendment. Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express the thought that we hate.”

“A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy.

If the likes of Justices Alito, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg can agree on anything, let alone a pivotal First Amendment case, Harvard University can see its way clear to readmit those students with whom they disagree and open a dialogue where speech is encouraged and treasured, not thwarted and silenced.

Sanford D. Horn is a writer and educator living in Westfield, IN.


  1. Right on! It may not be a violation of the First Amendment for Harvard to deny (or revoke) admission to particular individuals because of their views, however odious--because Harvard is a private institution, not an agency of the government. (The amendment requires that "Congress shall make no law," not that "no individual or non-governmental organization shall prohibit or impair in any way the speech of another individual or non-governmental organization...." But the principle of free expression, and its centrality to a free society, preceeds even the First Amendment. Even without that amendment, if there are any institutions in our society that ought to be champions of freedom of thought, expression and inquiry, it is the universities; and if Harvard claims to be our foremost private university, it ought to lead that championship, not cower in pusillanimous abridgement thereof.

    Michael Hobbs
    (Harvard Law School '65)

  2. I've gone back and fourth with this issue. Originally I was on the side of Harvard. My thinking was that the students are representatives of the school, and the hate speech that they were saying makes Harvard look bad. (IE when people see the headline with the word Harvard and hate speech, they draw certain conclusions about what Harvard endorses/allows) I've since changed my mind. I can't connect the dots from what these students did privately, to being a representative of Harvard/Students of the school. The dots don't connect there.
    -Jared G