Defending Civil Discourse on Campus
PEN America organizes free speech summit at Harvard
In early November 2015, an angry group of Yale students surrounded Nicholas Christakis M.D.'89, then master of Silliman residential college (and before then master of Pforzheimer House). Days earlier, his wife, Erika '86, a professor of childhood education, had sent an email to Silliman students criticizing university administrators’ guidelines for student Halloween costumes. She wrote that students were capable of self-policing their costume choices, and she wondered if there was no longer space for students to be “a little bit obnoxious” or “offensive” on a holiday that was once “a day of subversion.” Now, Christakis stood before a crowd who was angry over his and his wife’s perceived lack of care about student comfort. Running a residential college, yelled one student, “is not about creating an intellectual space… It’s about creating a home.” When Christakis expressed a different opinion, the student shouted that he was “disgusting.”
To Suzanne Nossel ’91, J.D. ’96, CEO of free expression nonprofit PEN America, the student outburst represented a fundamental shift in campus climate. The Yale incident, she said, “kindled this awareness that principles of free speech were losing their moorings on college campuses and that you had a rising generation of young people that…felt like free speech was a smokescreen for hatred.”
In 2015, PEN (originally an acronym referring to Poets, Essayists, and Novelists but now welcoming as members anyone concerned with words and freedom of expression) America started to study campus speech climates. The group, which works both in literature and human rights, feared that free speech could fade if people did not value or protect it. Over eight years later, the battle between free speech and student comfort has continued to intensify. On Thursday evening, the nonprofit held its “Free Expression Student Summit” at Harvard. Nearly 100 students participated in the two-day event, which began with a Thursday evening keynote panel titled “Combatting Censorship, Disinformation, and Hate” and continued into Friday, with workshops on cancel culture, protest rights, and academic freedom. The summit was the first public event organized by Harvard’s Intellectual Vitality Committee, a group focused on stimulating open conversations on campus.
Nossel traces the recent struggles over collegiate free speech back to America’s rapidly diversifying campuses. “When I was here as a student,” she said on the panel, “I was beginning to think about how the University needed to address a student population that was different from the one that Harvard was founded for centuries ago.”
The diverse student population was not just new for Harvard—it was new for its students, too. “Our high schools,” said Nossel in an interview preceding the panel, “remain significantly segregated in this country,” leaving students ill-equipped to interact with people of different backgrounds and ideologies. Universities, she continued, are not properly “inculcating into students the idea that you’re coming into an environment where there’s going to be…discourse.” When students who have not previously debated then enter college without being explicitly told that it is a place where ideas are fiercely exchanged, the purpose of the university becomes muddied—is it an “intellectual space,” or is it a “home”?
Oftentimes, diverse classroom environments can make the free exchange of ideas more difficult. Students may not share controversial thoughts, she said on the panel, out of “fear of being labeled, whether as a bigot, transphobic, or racist.” Fear of peer humiliation quiets conversation. Harvard’s Intellectual Vitality Committee was formed by a group of students concerned by that stifled environment—they complained in 2020 to Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana, the panel’s moderator, that the intellectual diversity in classrooms did not present itself in conversations.
Just because free speech allows people to say something controversial does not mean they should. Nossel noted that arguers should still speak respectfully—using fiery language instead may divert a listener’s attention from the argument, and even stoke anger. As Klein professor of law Randall Kennedy succinctly put it, to some extent, “ostracization keeps society healthy.”
Though the panelists acknowledged the many factors that restrict campus speech, they also felt that University affiliates often overreact. When Kennedy’s colleagues complain that they have to “walk on eggshells” with their language, he sometimes replies, “What do you think, that somebody is going to throw you in the gulag?” He later added, “Where else in American life…is there more openness than in the university?” Nossel, on the other hand, said that while offensive speech can affect students “psychologically, academically, and even physically,” those harms “can be exaggerated… and over-emphasized,” continuing, “This language and currency of harm has become chilling and silencing.”
Dramatics aside, the perception of a poor speech environment is often enough to restrict campus conversation. “Free speech has to be fearless speech,” said John Boyer, who recently ended a three-decade tenure as dean of the college at the University of Chicago.
The Thursday evening panel kicked off a week of programming by the University, “Harvard Dialogues,” meant “to address how the campus community can communicate more openly and constructively within classrooms and in the broader world.” and The events—alongside a slew of announcements about clarified protest rules and new speech initiatives at the Kennedy School—represent Harvard’s effort to reckon with last semester’s campus protests, capped by the resignation of President Claudine Gay.
For a path forward, Nossel suggested that Harvard “institutionalize and universalize the place of free speech on campus.” Marred by high-profile wavering about free speech, “the university has to have the back of people who test boundaries and say things that are controversial,” said Nossel in an interview. She proposed that matriculating freshmen attend workshops about free speech during orientation and that underclassmen take a mandatory course on debating difficult ideas. Removing cell phones from classrooms, she added, would help reinforce the understanding that in-class conversations are distinct from those happening in the public arena.
“I hope this moment of crisis can become the catalyst” to strengthen free speech, said Nossel on the panel. “Harvard could be a leader here because I think it is so elemental to the university’s values. What happens at Harvard, and the disposition of this crisis, is going to be watched, not just across the country, but all over the world.”