My first year at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government hasn’t been what I expected — and I’m not just talking about all the restrictions to guard against the spread of COVID-19. I couldn’t have predicted that I’d be delivering a speech to my peers urging them to uphold free speech at one of America’s most prestigious centers of learning.
Unfortunately, I recently found myself on Zoom urging members of the Harvard Kennedy School Student Government to reject a student-led effort to restrict Trump administration officials from speaking at Harvard.
While I am relieved that the student government ultimately rejected the restrictions, I remain disturbed that my peers would propose this action and that it actually could have passed. An education underpinned by conditions of censorship is not a real education. And those who seek an education should never demand protection from ideas.
I came to Harvard to learn. But institutions of higher education that allow for restrictions on information and dialogue —whether imposed by students or administrators — forfeit the title of “educational institution” in exchange for the title “indoctrination center.” The latter is not what I signed up for. I want Harvard to deliver the education it claims to offer.
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I am shocked and disappointed that some of my fellow graduate students — who surely came to one of the world’s top government affairs graduate programs to grow intellectually and professionally—would make these demands. The authors of the letter calling for banning Trump officials from campus said the reason for the ban was to, ironically, stop the “subversion of democratic principles” by the Trump administration. But free speech is a democratic principle.
The authors of this letter seek to cancel debate and silence political opposition. They are terrified of having their world views challenged. But that’s exactly why earnest minds have traditionally come to Harvard.
The Kennedy School has hosted many controversial figures, including members of the Clinton and Nixon administrations, former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder, and the late secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Saeb Erekat.
We students are adults and we are fully capable of hearing uncomfortable and offensive information and arguments. It will only make us better.
I am a conservative. Harvard is an overwhelmingly liberal institution. I have only benefitted by having my ideas and values challenged while studying here. But more than that, Harvard owes it to students like me to be honest about what it claims to offer — a rigorous intellectual environment and access to top leaders.
Whether you agree with Trump policies or not, those who served in Trump administration have firsthand knowledge and experience in the highest levels of domestic and foreign policy. These players have impacted the world and we students can decide if their marks were good or bad, and conclude the missteps for ourselves.
But the onus is on universities to uphold their missions. They need to teach their students that cancel culture has no place in rigorous academic circles.
Unfortunately, we have seen the opposite on campuses across the United States. Speakers including Charles Murray, Ben Shapiro, and Christina Hoff Sommers have been shouted down and violently protested in an effort to silence them.
And just this fall, Duke University Law School students penned a letter to bar Professor Helen Alvare from speaking at an on-campus event because she holds pro-traditional marriage views.
But it’s not just those with a platform that leftist students want to eradicate from campuses. A student-led effort at the University of Texas-Austin aimed to dox students who join the Young Conservatives of Texas club.
Given that universities have yielded to cancel culture, it’s not surprising that one of the youngest members of Congress, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., felt comfortable supporting a blacklist of anyone who supported the Trump administration.
When the institutions charged with shaping the next generation of leaders fail to uphold democratic principles on campus, we shouldn’t be surprised that our elected leaders fail to understand and protect our constitutional rights.
The Kennedy School is named after President John F. Kennedy, who was once a Harvard student himself. In advocating for a free exchange of ideas, he said shortly before the presidential election in 1960: “If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all — except the censor. We must know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors. For the Bill of Rights is the guardian of our security as well as our liberty.”
I pray that not only my beloved school, but colleges and universities across the country, live up to this message. The future of our republic depends on it.