The Value of Free Expression
Harvard’s University-Wide Statement of Rights and Responsibilities underscores the importance of maintaining an academic environment that encourages the free exchange of ideas and protects the rights of individuals to express their views within the bounds of reasoned dissent. Commitment to free speech and reasoned dissent are also central to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s vision, mission, and values.
We value free expression for many reasons. Among them:
- A diverse and inclusive community depends upon freedom of expression; we are not truly inclusive if some perspectives can be voiced and heard while others cannot.
- Academic excellence depends upon freedom of expression; advances in research, practice, and education are all fed by the open exchange of ideas.
- Effective action to protect the public health depends upon freedom of expression; we need to understand the full range of views in order to serve the full range of communities’ public health needs.
- Full, free, and open discourse accords greater legitimacy to the outcomes of academic research; the public must be able to trust that our work reflects consideration of a range of perspectives and a full evaluation of all available possibilities and ideas.
The Challenge of Open Debate
Harvard Chan School strives to nurture — and expects each of its community members to contribute to — an affirming, respectful, and inclusive environment for learning and working. We do not encourage or protect harassment or discrimination. Yet our commitment to freedom of expression by its nature entails tolerating some speech that members of the community may receive as offensive or harmful. Although this expression may feel deeply injurious to some who hear it, it is nevertheless protected and permissible speech, unless it takes on a character that violates University or School policies on harassment, discrimination, or bullying.
Challenging as they may be, disagreement and dissent give members of our community an opportunity to engage with ideas born of different value systems, perspectives, and life experience. Engaging in civil disagreement can be a valuable learning experience and is indeed essential for students preparing for an effective career in public health, as they will necessarily need to receive, consider, and respect a broad range of viewpoints (often controversial, and many at odds with their own values) in the outside world.
For this reason, our default position is to approach controversies over free expression as opportunities for learning rather than occasions for disciplinary or other adverse administrative action to be taken by the School.
We appreciate that the ideal of free expression is often in tension with other important values held by individuals and by the School itself. One source of complexity is the range of positions—and the associated power dynamics—at play in a university community. Another is the porous nature of university life: we cannot and should not try to separate the academic environment from the outside world. As a result, the exercise of free speech may give rise to intense disagreement and even controversy within the School community. Each circumstance is nuanced and can help inform our ongoing work to learn from one another. The more we are able to learn from such controversies, even when emotions are strong, the more likely we will be able to avoid the destructive pull of ideological extremes.
For a lengthy discussion of academic freedom and free expression as they apply to both students and faculty, please review our Frequently Asked Questions document.
The following guidelines frame the Harvard Chan School’s expectations for members of its community during events, meetings, and other occasions when speakers present their views—at the School or elsewhere at Harvard University. They draw heavily on guidelines that have been used by the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Law School, and the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
The Right to Dissent
The right to dissent is the complement of the right to speak, but these rights need not occupy the same forum at the same time.
Speakers are entitled to communicate their message to an audience during the allotted time, and all members of the audience are entitled to hear the message and see the speaker during that time; therefore, dissenters must not substantially interfere with a speaker’s ability to communicate or an audience’s ability to see and hear the speaker.
Dissenters are entitled to express their objections in other ways. When an event is “closed”, i.e., accessible only to members of a particular organization and/or the host’s invitees, dissent by non-attendees is limited to activity outside the event that does not impede access to the event or substantially interfere with communication inside. When an event is open, appropriate means of dissent depend on location and timing. The policies below offer more specific guidance.
Picketing and Distributing Literature
Picketing and protesting in an orderly way or distributing literature outside an event is acceptable unless it impedes access to the event or substantially interferes with communication inside the event. To facilitate both dissent and access to the event, Harvard Chan School may designate certain areas in close proximity to an event in which picketing or protest can occur. Distributing literature inside an open event is acceptable before the event is called to order and after the event is adjourned, but not during the speaking portion of the event.
Silent or Symbolic Protest
Displaying a sign, wearing symbolic clothing, gesturing, standing, or otherwise protesting noiselessly inside an event is acceptable unless that protest interferes with an audience’s view or prevents a speaker from effectively conveying their message. Therefore, signs, prolonged standing, and other activity likely to block the view of a speaker should be confined to the back of a room.
Responding vocally to a speaker, spontaneously and temporarily, is generally acceptable. However, chanting or making other sustained or repeated noise in a manner that substantially interferes with the speaker’s communication is not permitted, whether inside or outside an event.
Force or Violence
Using or threatening force or violence—such as assaulting a speaker or a member of an audience or interfering with the freedom of movement of a speaker or a member of an audience—is never permitted.
Responsibility of an Audience and Host
Both the audience and the host (including the host organization) must respect the right to dissent. For example, audience members should not attempt to remove signs that are not blocking the view of a speaker or shout down a questioner before a question has reasonably been finished. Anyone who substantially interferes with acceptable dissent is violating these guidelines as much as a dissenter who violates the rights of a speaker or audience.
Questions from Audience and Moderator Role
If the format of an event—as decided ahead of time with any guest speakers—includes open Q&A, the Harvard Chan School requests that event organizers arrange, as best as possible, for a neutral and skilled moderator, so as to encourage a balanced set of questions or points of view from the audience.
Harvard Chan School may determine that open and civil discussion at an event requires the use of a moderator and may designate a moderator in consultation with the host. A moderator will generally be a member of the faculty or administration of Harvard Chan School or Harvard University. Decisions at the event about how to balance the rights of a speaker with the rights of dissenters will be made by the moderator or other officials designated by Harvard Chan School or Harvard University. Failure to comply with requests by these moderators or other officials would be a violation of these guidelines.
Moderators are encouraged to think in advance about how they might respond to disruptive situations. Here are some examples of such responses:
- “We’ve invited [speaker name] here to speak on an important topic. You may not agree with their views, but they deserve the opportunity to deliver their remarks uninterrupted.”
- “This Q&A period is not an opportunity for you to share your views at length. If you have a question, please ask it and sit down so others can have a turn.”
- “I’d like to remind those who are protesting about our school policies on free expression: You have the right to register a protest, but invited speakers also have the right to share their views. [Speaker name] must be allowed to deliver their remarks without substantial interference.”
- “While you have the right to protest, our speaker also has the right to share their views, and the audience deserves a chance to see and hear this presentation. I’m going to ask you to please hold your signs quietly in the back or exit the room.”
- “I’m going to ask security to clear the room of protestors who are interrupting this session.”
Violations of Policies on Protest and Dissent
Any violations of these guidelines by Harvard Chan School students would represent violations of the student Code of Conduct and the violators would be subject to appropriate disciplinary action. Any violations of the guidelines by staff members, faculty members, speakers, or other audience members would also be grounds for appropriate disciplinary action.