Censorship at Harvard University: Administration Threatened to Cancel ‘Barely Legal’ Party Due to Event’s Name
June 5, 2008
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., June 5, 2008—Harvard University threatened to cancel a party planned by two Harvard student groups simply because of the party's name: "Barely Legal." The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has asked Harvard to reaffirm its commitment to its students' right to freedom of expression.
"Today is Harvard's commencement, where students are celebrating their achievements and the completion of study at a world-renowned university. It is a shame that administrators at Harvard have cheapened those degrees by standing by a silly act of censorship and gross double standards," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "The truly mild idea behind the party—'So crazy it should be illegal'—is hardly the same thing as endorsing illegality. Harvard should know better."
In April, the Latino Men's Collective (LMC) and Fuerza Latina proposed that a party be held in the Adams House Dining Hall. Adams House administrators agreed to host the party-but once the party was publicized using the "Barely Legal" name, several students complained to the House masters. The student leadership of both LMC and Fuerza Latina publicly stated that they meant no offense by the party's name and did not intend to glorify or encourage illegal activity. Nevertheless, Adams House administrators told LMC and Fuerza Latina they would not be allowed to hold the party unless the name was changed. The students agreed to take down all publicity for the party (a YouTube advertisement with the original name remains). Adams House Resident Dean Sharon Howell told The Harvard Crimson that the students "should have been more thoughtful considering the context."
FIRE wrote to Howell on May 8, 2008, reminding her that threatening to cancel a student group's party because some people found its name offensive was a clear violation of Harvard's own binding promises of freedom of expression. In a May 30 response, Bradley E. Abruzzi, a Harvard Associate Attorney, stated that because Adams House has discretion over allowing student groups to organize events there, granting access to the House's facilities "necessarily carries an endorsement of the event by the House."
Harvard's argument is bizarre, as Adams House has in the past hosted events including "S&M bingo," "Erotica Night," and "Chocoholica," where partygoers distributed chocolate genitalia. "It is ridiculous to police the themes of college parties in the first place, but here Harvard has also acted arbitrarily and inconsistently," Lukianoff said.
"Harvard's claim that simply allowing a given event to take place on campus implies an endorsement of the event illustrates a major misunderstanding of expressive rights at Harvard," Lukianoff said. "Does Harvard really wish to argue that since earlier parties involved 'erotica' and chocolate genitalia, Harvard endorses these things? No one assumes that a college agrees with or endorses all the expression on its campus—not only would this be impossible, but it is also incompatible with a true 'marketplace of ideas.' If Harvard is willing to censor something as small as a party with a mild theme, how can we believe that it will defend the expression of truly controversial views on its campus? It boggles the mind why Harvard thought it should intervene here in the first place."
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation's colleges and universities. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
Sharon Howell, Adams House Resident Dean, Harvard University: 617-493-2138; firstname.lastname@example.org
Bradley E. Abruzzi, Associate Attorney, Harvard University: 617-495-1281; email@example.com