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Hiding behind free expression

With Hamas statement, Harvard suddenly embraces free speech after years of stifling it

A bicyclist walks by Harvard University's Langdell Hall on Aug. 1, 2005. Associated Press/Photo by Charles Krupa

Hiding behind free expression
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In the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack upon Israel by Hamas, the responses have provided a helpful revelation of where many institutions and organizations truly stand. They are now flying their colors openly. Some chapters of Black Lives Matter have justified the unprovoked slaughter, rape, and kidnapping, claiming, as according to the L.A. chapter, that they “must stand unwaveringly on the side of the oppressed” and that “their resistance must not be condemned, but understood as a desperate act of self-defense.” If a coordinated murder of helpless and innocent civilians at music festivals is an act of “self-defense,” then words have no meaning. As long as a group can claim the mantle of “oppression,” wanton rape and cruelty are apparently justified until they have achieved the demanded liberation.

This brings us to elite universities, which are often quite eager to release statements in the wake of tragedies, ever concerned with being on the right side of history. Take the invasion of Ukraine a year and a half ago. The then-president of Harvard University, Lawrence Bacow, denounced the invasion in the strongest terms and resolved to support the Ukrainians and flew the Ukrainian flag over Harvard Yard as a sign of solidarity. Marc Tessier-Lavigne, then president of Stanford University, expressed immediate solidarity and support for Ukrainian students and condemnation of the aggressive attack by Russia. Or take the president of Northwestern who, at the time of the George Floyd murder, expressed “outrage and disgust” at the killing of Floyd. After both incidents, the condemnations by presidents and universities across the country were swift and absolute. There was no allowance or room for a different perspective of these events.

By contrast, in the wake of the unprecedented terror attack on Israel last week, the responses have been notably cautious, delayed, and qualified. President Roxane Gay of Harvard offered one line devoted to condemning Hamas’ attack. She then spent the rest of the statement defending Harvard’s institutional credibility from student groups who blamed Israel for the terror attack. Not a word was mentioned about the outrageous claims of the student groups except that they did not represent Harvard University’s view. Following a public backlash to her tepid response and the student group statement, President Gay released a video statement more extensively denouncing Hamas’ terror attacks, stating Harvard’s stance against discrimination, and the importance of free speech. What about Stanford or Northwestern? They followed roughly the same trajectory, with tepid and equivocal statements followed by defenses of free speech and viewpoint diversity.

Perhaps if Harvard had a history of encouraging free speech and debate on controversial issues, President Gay’s statement might have some integrity, but it does not.

Color me skeptical that in the wake of this terror attack by one of the darlings of the left, Palestinian activists, elite universities have suddenly discovered convictions about freedom of speech and intellectual diversity after decades of progressive dogmatism and censorship on American college campuses. I don’t buy it, and neither should you. It is laughable that Harvard, considered the worst university in the country for freedom of expression, has now decided to pursue “freedom of speech” as a defense after years of stifling it. Perhaps if Harvard had a history of encouraging free speech and debate on controversial issues, President Gay’s statement might have some integrity, but it does not. It reeks of self-serving and rank hypocrisy. How convenient that free speech is now allowable when it comes to the politically correct targeting of a historic scapegoat. Meanwhile, if a Christian student dared to state his belief on what marriage is, he would probably be canceled as an agent of hate and bigotry. Places like Harvard are not operating on the grounds of principle. They are operating on the grounds of shoring up their credibility on the left by whatever means necessary.

The retreat to free speech is a rearguard action to keep Harvard and other elite universities from losing credibility by soft peddling the morally repugnant views that many on the left hold on the terror attacks. The extreme views of Hamas are given a free pass or explained away because they are “oppressed peoples” fighting for “liberation,” while Israel and American Jews, whose people have suffered actual traumatic violence at the hands of Hamas, are treated as a topic for civil debate.

If some universities that have become a monoculture of progressive groupthink are trying to chart a new course that values diversity of viewpoint and freedom of expression, I am all for it. But until their actions match their words, we should put no stock in their newly convenient convictions about free expression.

Daniel Strand

Daniel Strand is assistant professor of ethics at the Air War College and ethics chair of Air University. His views do not represent those of the United States government.

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