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Haverford Students Demand Free Speech Protections, Prompting Questions About Specifics

Updated: Mar 5

As the Haverford College community continues to grapple with the Israel-Hamas conflict, the hateful act of violence perpetrated against one of our own in Burlington, Vermont over the weekend has prompted Students’ Council and a new student-activist group named “Students for Peace” to organize a formal document with demands of the Haverford administration. One of these demands calls for “Admin Support for Faculty and Student Freedom of Speech,” a necessary call to action after administrators at Bryn Mawr alluded to the use of Honor Trials against student-activists earlier this semester.

Student-activists’ recognition of Haverford’s lack of free speech culture is well-placed. Indeed, Haverford is desperately in need of reform when it comes to academic freedom and expressive liberties on campus. In September, Haverford ranked among the lowest institutions of higher learning in the country for free speech, placing 208th out of 248 surveyed schools.

As Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) President Greg Lukianoff wrote in The Atlantic this week, “The recent censoring of speech on campus is part of a trend that began long before the Israel-Hamas war.”

Delving into the fine print of the demands, however, raises questions about what specifically is being requested under the banner of free speech. Do the demands offer a genuine call for universally-bolstered free speech protections for faculty, staff and students? Or, do they advocate for what Nat Hentoff memorably termed “Free Speech for Me–But Not for Thee”?

The demands provide a list of specific ways in which free speech should be supported, prefaced by the statement: “We demand Haverford ensure full protection for faculty and students who speak out about their positions related to the injustice in Palestine in the following ways: […].”

Many of the enumerated proposals that follow would be universal advances for the expressive rights of Haverford community members. The demands ask that Haverford provide “an information session with legal advisors available to students to provide transparency on their protections when it comes to freedom of speech and student activism in the United States so that students have the tools needed to be safely involved in activism on and off campus.”

In addition, they request that Haverford “provide legal support regarding freedom of speech for faculty and staff upon request.” These are laudable initiatives which an institution committed to elevating free expression might enact. If Haverford were to accept these enumerated demands, it would build on the school’s proud history of supporting student protesters amidst the Vietnam War.

Yet many of the other enumerated demands are troublesome, since they appear to advocate for enhancements to the free speech protections of some — but not all — community members. Speech protections which are not universal, and which discriminate based on viewpoint, are not protections of free speech at all.

Haverford students join a protest against the war in Vietnam in 1965. (Haverford College Quaker & Special Collections / Author Unknown)

One of the specific ways in which the demands ask that free speech be bolstered at Haverford is an explicit recognition that “academic freedom and freedom of speech includes the guaranteed right to speak about the current aggression on Gaza and its broader historical context.” At a time when many voices are being suppressed for doing just that, this is surely warranted. Those who wish to criticize Israel should certainly have the right to do so.

Yet I wonder about what the fine print leaves out. There is no mention of a guarantee for those who would like to channel their expression towards the defense of Israel. Do the writers of these demands — who claim to support free speech, a universal principle, and who represent the entire student body on Students’ Council — also seek equal protections for community members who wish to speak out about Hamas and other terrorist organizations’ aggression on Israel? This would surely be warranted, too. Earlier this month, a professor at the University of Southern California was punished for expressing anti-Hamas sentiments. Earlier this year, Duke University denied pro-Israel students’ expressive and associational rights until FIRE intervened. 

Likewise, the demands ask administrators to “commit to a policy that ensures that future consideration for tenure-track faculty will not be negatively impacted for speaking up against the apartheid in Palestine, including no financial retributions.” Academic freedom should indeed protect professors who take a stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, but it is concerning that the demands only ask for one particular stance to be protected. Academic freedom is a two-way street, and policy protections should apply universally, irrespective of viewpoint, since political winds shift constantly, and what is popular speech today may be unpopular tomorrow.

The demands’ professed promotion of freedom of speech is further undercut by its request, separate from its enumerated free speech proposals, that Haverford take a formal political stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Specifically, the demands ask for “a statement from the College recognizing the State of Israel as responsible for the Apartheid in Palestine.” If Haverford were to formally adopt this political position, it would cast a chilling effect upon the expression of opposing viewpoints on campus.

As the University of Chicago’s “Kalven Report” states, when institutions of higher learning are functioning most effectively to support academic freedom, they are “the home and sponsor of critics,” not the critic itself. 

The organizational sponsors of these demands are Students’ Council and the vaguely-named “Students for Peace” group, not Students for Justice in Palestine. Students’ Council has a mandate to represent the student body as a whole, while “Students for Peace” claims principles of free speech and academic freedom as central to its objectives. Both organizations should live up to those foundational values by protecting expression across viewpoints rather than only seeking speech protections for some. The question remains: are these demands in support of robust and pluralistic discourse on campus, or are they only in support of the robust expression of a select viewpoint? 

Perhaps my question will be resolved by future, even-handed edits to the recently-drafted demands that will ensure they reflect a genuine desire for everyone to speak freely, rather than only some. Yet if the omissions I have highlighted are intentional, then student-activists are committing a short-sighted mistake.

It is a strategic error to condone the censorship of your political opposite while carving out exceptions for yourself. Former American Civil Liberties Union director Ira Glasser described this point well: “Speech restrictions are like poison gas. It seems like it’s a great weapon to have when you’ve got the poison gas in your hands . . . but the wind has a way of shifting . . . and suddenly that poison gas is being blown back on you.”

If student-activists are serious about creating a culture of free speech at Haverford, then they might consider petitioning the administration to adopt a version of the Chicago Statement, which “guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” 

Furthermore, we as a student body — no admin initiative necessary — could also take it upon ourselves to revise what is perhaps our community’s most censorious policy: the Honor Code. When Bryn Mawr administrators threatened student-activists with an Honor Trial earlier this semester, it was a harbinger of the Honor Code’s censorious potential. Although the Deans had no authority to initiate a student-led process, there is nothing preventing students from bringing protesters before the Honor Council for offending their political views. This is troublesome. If you build structures of censorship to punish opinions you disagree with, they will inevitably be used to censor opinions you do agree with.

I ask that we show the courage and compassion to allow those other from us to speak and to be heard. Haverford’s campus culture is prone to dogmatic rigidity, a false omnipotence which assumes the loudest opinion to be just and correct and everyone else’s to be wrong. Yet life is complex. Free speech can allow us to discover nuance. Let us acknowledge our differences, the ambiguities of the world, and our common humanity, openly, and in conversation.


— William Harris, for The New Kronstadt (Nov 30, 2023)

William Harris '24 is a current student at Haverford College.

Originally published November 30, 2023 in The Bi-College News (linked here)


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