Op Eds

Faculty Speech Must Have Limits


After this historic year of endless controversy, I — like many faculty members — look forward to calmer times on campus. But before any semblance of normalcy can be achieved, we must come together to resolve two lingering questions about our role in the University community.

Having witnessed the appallingly rough manner in which prominent affiliates, including one former University president, publicly denounced Harvard’s students and present leadership, this first question must be answered: Is it outside the bounds of acceptable professional conduct for a faculty member to excoriate University leadership, faculty, staff, or students with the intent to arouse external intervention into University business? And does the broad publication of such views cross a line into sanctionable violations of professional conduct?

Yes it is and yes it does.

Vigorous debate is to be expected and encouraged at any University interested in promoting freedom of expression. But here is the rub: As the events of the past year evidence, sharply critical speech from faculty, prominent ones especially, can attract outside attention that directly impedes the University’s function.


A faculty member’s right to free speech does not amount to a blank check to engage in behaviors that plainly incite external actors — be it the media, alumni, donors, federal agencies, or the government — to intervene in Harvard’s affairs. Along with freedom of expression and the protection of tenure comes a responsibility to exercise good professional judgment and to refrain from conscious action that would seriously harm the University and its independence.

Internal discussion on key policy matters can occasion sharp differences of opinion. The expression of diverse, conflicting positions, especially those advanced with passion and conviction, is the stuff of a healthy intellectual community. Academic departments, faculty meetings, town halls, and campus publications should be regular forums for participation in University governance.

But many faculty at Harvard enjoy an external stature that also opens to them much broader platforms for potential advocacy. Figures such as Raj Chetty ’00, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jill Lepore, or Steven A. Pinker have well-earned notoriety that reaches far beyond the academy.

Would it simply be an ordinary act of free speech for those faculty to repeatedly denounce the University, its students, fellow faculty, or leadership? The truth is that free speech has limits — it’s why you can’t escape sanction for shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.

Following similar logic: Is it acceptable professional conduct for a faculty member to encourage civil disobedience on the part of students that violates University policies? Faculty advocacy for actions clearly identified as in violation of student conduct rules is extremely problematic. Doing so after students have received official notification of a potential serious infraction is not acceptable. Such behavior should have sanctionable limits as well.

Having said that, it is critically important that faculty play a role in educating students about the history and nature of social protest — its successes and failures, when it is ethical and when it is not. Boycotts, teach-ins, sit-ins, walk-outs, and marches are venerable tools for expressing grievances and pressuring institutions.

Students should learn about the premises that guide and undergird non-violent direct action protests. They should learn about making strategic choices of targets and proper or allowable modes of engagement. They must also learn from the example of heroic figures like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Congressman John Lewis to recognize and accept the fact that breaking the law is likely to involve consequences, including the risk of arrest.

Modern student protest appears less and less likely to target major non-University events, businesses, or government bodies. Rather, they’re comfortably situated in the confines of college campuses, directing demands for change at university administrators and boards of directors.

While this certainly draws in media attention, it is flawed. Targeting protest at those charged with a pastoral duty of care for their students and an indirect-at-best relation to the protesters’ core grievance considerably removes these efforts from the inarguably heroic actions of college students who burned draft cards in protest of the Vietnam War, registered black voters in Mississippi or Alabama, sat in at segregated lunch counters, or joined marches for women’s liberation and gay rights.

Even this commitment to instruct students on protest, however, is not without justifiable limits. If we are prepared to sanction our students for a line of action contrary to our codes of conduct, then I believe professors or administrators who encourage and advocate for such actions should also face parallel consequences.

As Harvard has moved to limit its opining on salient public issues, we must use our voices as faculty responsibly. Do we allow individual faculty with large external platforms to invite external interference and encourage student misconduct without consequence?

With unprecedented freedom comes great responsibility. These are matters the leadership of this university must address directly if we are to avert a troubling recurrence of the historic challenges that have unsettled life on our campus over the past nine months.

Lawrence D. Bobo is Dean of Social Science and the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.