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Harvard’s Free Speech Debate Takes a Rightward Turn

Harvard’s Open Campus Initiative says it wants to encourage free speech from all ideological viewpoints—starting with inviting controversial conservative voices.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

In the month since Charles Murray’s scheduled talk at Middlebury College was thwarted by violent demonstrations on campus, several student groups at elite universities like Columbia and Harvard are courting Murray and other controversial speakers in attempt to challenge what they view as ideological intolerance on college campuses.

At Harvard University, the newly established Open Campus Initiative—dubbed the “free speech club” on campus—has booked Murray for a speaking engagement next semester and is hosting another campus pariah, University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, for its first official event tonight, Monday.

Harvard’s Open Campus Initiative spent roughly $1,000 on security reinforcements surrounding Peterson’s arrival on campus, which has provoked backlash from LGBT students.

Peterson has been targeted by student protesters for speaking out against a proposed law in Canada that would mandate the use of gender-neutral descriptors like “they” as part of a broader push for transgender rights.

“Professor Peterson is an accomplished psychologist who has a lot more to talk about than gender pronouns, but I think idea of institutionally-backed efforts to force people to use certain words is worth debating,” Conor Healy, a sophomore at Harvard and head of the Open Campus Initiative, told The Daily Beast.

The Harvard Crimson recently reported that Healy’s Open Campus Initiative, which became an officially recognized student organization in December, is aiming to “‘test’ the limits” of free speech and has been criticized on campus for courting “right-wing speakers.”

But Healy said the group is more interested in “testing the university’s policies on free speech,” and plans to host more conventionally liberal speakers in the future. He stressed that they want to be a “non-partisan political group,” but are opening with libertarian and conservative-leaning speakers because they represent viewpoints that he believes are repressed in the current campus environment.

“Some people have labeled us a hate group, but I think the majority of students at Harvard are pleased that we’re introducing some ideological diversity to campus,” said Healy, who is gay and describes himself as a “moderate libertarian.” Still, he insisted that more than half of the group’s 35 members identify as Democrats.

One of them is Akash Wasil, a sophomore who is also a member of the Harvard College Democrats. He joined the Open Campus Initiative because he believes Harvard needs “more diverse viewpoints on campus.”

“A lot of student groups who are hesitant to invite these speakers or engage these ideas argue that by inviting them to speak we condone their views,” he said, “but the point of the Open Campus Initiative is to show that we can engage these viewpoints without validating them.”

Helene Lovett, a sophomore who is affiliated with Harvard’s Trans Task Force, is one of roughly thirty students expected to protest outside the event tonight. They will hand out fliers for a half hour to people attending the event before gathering together in a separate space.

“[Professor Peterson] is using a marginalized, vulnerable population to advance his views and that’s completely irresponsible,” Lovett said of Monday night’s speaker, adding that she was particularly critical of his failure to take responsibility for threats against trans students that reportedly resulted from lectures he gave at the University of Toronto.

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“Gender identity and the failure to recognize essential components of gender identity are not the place for debating whether free speech is at risk, because in exposing this population to more violent people who think that non-binary identities don’t exist you expose those people to extreme harm,” Lovett said.

Kirsi Anselmi-Stith, a junior at Harvard who has helped organize the attendant gathering in response to Open Campus Initiative’s event, said that some students plan to engage Professor Peterson directly.

“It’s really frustrating that ‘free speech’ often translates to ‘means an attack on X group,’” said Anselmi-Stith. “I think debating this particular issue is weird because it’s debating someone who denies that gender non-conforming trans people exist.”

Still, she added, she believes the students behind Open Campus Initiative are “good people who mean well in their own way.”