THE IRONY: Harvard, FIRE’s “Worst School for Free Speech 2023,” supports FREE EXPRESSION of pro-HAMAS students
10/18/2023 // Belle Carter // Views

Massachusetts-based private Ivy League research university has recently expressed its "commitment to free expression" after more than 30 of its student groups issued a statement blaming Israel for the Hamas terrorist attack that left more than 1,300 Israelis dead. In a video message on Harvard University's YouTube account, its President Claudine Gay shared her statement as the war in Israel and Gaza continues.

"Our university embraces a commitment to free expression. That commitment extends even to views that many of us find objectionable, even outrageous. We do not punish or sanction people for expressing such views," Gay said in the university’s third public statement. "But that is a far cry from endorsing them. It's in the exercise of our freedom to speak that we reveal our characters and the character of our institution." (Related: Demonstrating a stunning disconnect from reality, dozens of Harvard student groups blame the Israeli government for the Hamas terror attack.)

But the irony is as critics point out: the prestigious left-leaning institution should "walk the talk." For this year's "College Free Speech Rankings" by the non-profit civil liberties group Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), Harvard again did not perform well as it finished below 75 percent of the schools surveyed in the past four years, the organization's newsletter last month reflected.

In 2020, the university ranked 46 out of 55 schools while in 2021, it was the 130th out of 154 schools. Last year, it placed 170th out of 203 schools. And this year, it came in dead last with the worst score ever: 0.00 out of a possible 100.00. This earns it the notorious distinction of being the only school ranked this year with an "abysmal" speech climate. "What's more, granting Harvard a score of 0.00 is generous. Its actual score is -10.69, more than six standard deviations below the average and more than two standard deviations below the second-to-last school in the rankings, its Ivy League counterpart, the University of Pennsylvania, which obtained an overall score of 11.13," the FIRE website further stated.

According to FIRE, Harvard did so poorly in the rankings because it has a dismal record of responding to deplatforming attempts, such as attempts to sanction students, student groups, scholars, and speakers for speech protected under First Amendment standards. Of nine attempts in total over the past five years, seven resulted in sanction, where the school was penalized in the rankings. First, Harvard sanctioned four scholars, three of whom it terminated between 2019 and 2023. In 2020, it revoked conservative student activist Kyle Kashuv's acceptance over comments he made on social media as a 16-year-old, for which he has since apologized. Then in 2022, it disinvited feminist philosopher Devin Buckley from an English department colloquium on campus over her views on gender and trans issues. In 2019, Harvard was the site of a substantial event disruption when protesters interrupted a joint talk featuring former Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow and Graduate School of Education Dean Bridget Terry Long by occupying the stage and refusing to leave.

Harvard's speech policies also earned FIRE's "yellow light" rating, which means it maintains rules that restrict some amount of protected expression or that, by their vague wording, Harvard could too easily use to restrict protected expression. Self-censorship is also on the rise as students who say they self-censor on campus "fairly often" or "very often," increased from 16 percent two years ago to 22 percent last year and 24 percent this year.

Hundreds of Harvard faculty rebuke Gay's statement; influential people cut ties with University

More than 350 Harvard faculty members wrote an open letter in response to a student statement that was "nothing less than condoning the mass murder" of over a thousand Israelis, adding the administration's response "fell short." In the letter to Gay, the professors said they were "deeply concerned about the events in the Middle East, as well as the safety of our students here on campus."

"The leaders of the major democratic countries united in saying that the terrorist actions of Hamas have no justification, no legitimacy, and must be universally condemned and that Israel should be supported in its efforts to defend itself and its people against such atrocities," the correspondence included. "In contrast, while terrorists were still killing Israelis in their homes, 35 Harvard student organizations wrote that they hold 'the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence,' with not a single word denouncing the horrific acts by Hamas." As for the educators, it could have been a teaching moment and an opportunity to remind our students that beyond our political debates, some acts such as war crimes are simply wrong.

Apart from the majority of the university instructors condemning the president's stand supporting the group of student organizations in saying that they held the Israeli regime "entirely responsible" for the violence unfolding in the region, influential people also cut links with Harvard.

Israeli billionaire businessman Idan Ofer and his wife stepped down from their positions on the university board. Ofer, who owns Quantum Pacific Group, is the world's 81st-richest person, with a net worth of $19.9 billion, per estimates by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He and his wife Batia sat on the executive board of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. They funded a fellowship for Israeli and Palestinian students to study at the school and a building named after them opened on campus in 2017. Recently, they withdrew a multi-million dollar donation that they planned to make, according to reports.

A nonprofit founded by former Victoria's Secret billionaire Leslie Wexner and his wife Abigail is also breaking off ties with Harvard alleging the school has been "tiptoeing" over Hamas' terror attacks against Israel. "We are stunned and sickened by the dismal failure of Harvard's leadership to take a clear and unequivocal stand against the barbaric murders of innocent Israeli civilians," the Wexner Foundation's leaders wrote in a Monday letter to the Harvard board of overseers.

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