November 19, 2002


Last night, the proposed code set off such a furious debate at an extraordinary campus ”town meeting” that some committee members and the law school dean said afterward that they were deeply uneasy with the idea.

They should be. I think that Harvard should consider adopting this statement from the University of Chicago:

“The ideas of different members of the University community will frequently conflict and we do not attempt to shield people from ideas that they may find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even offensive. Nor, as a general rule, does the University intervene to enforce social standards of civility.” . . .

In other words, the University permits partisan, even hostile statements against groups or states, but not violence or physical intimidation of individuals. And while we do not enforce speech or civility codes, we have long prided ourselves on the kind of respectful environment that encourages all to offer their views. We see this kind of civility not as a requirement, but as a virtue, and therefore worth pursuing. In short, while we sometimes treat ideas here rather roughly, we strive to treat others with the civility we would like to receive ourselves.

It’s okay for students to be made uncomfortable in class, and they should learn how to deal with opinions that they find unpleasant or offensive without asking for Big Brother to step in. If they can’t deal with that, then they don’t belong in law school.

UPDATE: Boston blogger Jay Fitzgerald writes: “Harvard is starting to get hurt by all these embarrassments.” I think that’s right. What’s interesting is that these kinds of PC initiatives are usually started by administrators who want to avoid divisiveness and bad publicity — yet they tend to produce far more of both than a principled free-speech stance.

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