Guidelines for Free Expression, Open Debate, Protest, and Dissent

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.