Harvard Law School
Photo: Chensiyuan via Wikimedia Commons
arvard University, a distressingly frequent recipient of Campus Muzzle Awards, wins the honor this year because of the Law School’s “disinvitation” of a controversial speaker.
The silencing of Robin Steinberg followed an all-too-familiar script: The Bronx Defenders Executive Director was invited to speak at the Law School, someone protested, and Ms. Steinberg’s invitation was rescinded. The two groups that initially invited Steinberg — the Women’s Law Association (WLA) and the Law and International Development Society (LIDS) — had also planned to honor Steinberg at the school’s International Women’s Day Exhibit, but they backpedaled from this as well.
The controversy lay in Steinberg’s participation in a rap video that contained violent anti-cop sentiments. In January 2015, New York City officials found Steinberg responsible for misconduct and mismanagement related to the video. On February 16, the New York Post reported on Steinberg’s invitation and implicitly condemned Harvard’s decision to invite and honor her. The student groups reacted to the bad press quickly; by the end of the day, Steinberg had been disinvited.
Notably, the larger Law School community decried the student groups’ decision to disinvite Steinberg. The Harvard Law Record published a letter with more than 180 signatories (including students, alumni, and faculty) arguing that Steinberg’s overall career amply qualified her as a speaker and Women’s Day honoree. Unfortunately, the student groups did not change course.
It’s heartening that some students, despite the increasingly censorial character of American college campuses, remain willing to criticize their holier-than-thou peers and acknowledge that much can be gained from listening to controversial speakers. But the bottom line remains that this incident still resulted in Steinberg’s being silenced—this time, Harvard failed as a conduit for the free exchange of ideas. The campus “disinvitation” trend forces us to ask ourselves the question: If only those who have never said or done anything objectionable may speak on campus, can anyone honestly do so? Perhaps it’s time for the ubiquitous “Veritas” icon that has characterized Harvard for centuries to be replaced by a more pointed slogan derived from an institution even older than Harvard: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”