Censorship at Harvard Law school: A lawyer disinvited for views irrelevant to his proposed talk

The article below, from the station WGBH in Boston, is by Harvey Silverglate, a co-founder of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), a former member of the Massachusetts board of the ACLU, and a civil rights and criminal defense attorney. And the story he tells is both unbelievable and chilling, for it relates a stupid case of disinvitation at, of all places, Harvard Law School.

In short, the Harvard Law School Forum invited Bruce Fein, a constitutional lawyer from Washington, D.C. to speak to their group. After some back and forth, they agreed that Fein would talk about “the beleaguered rule of law in the age of Trump”, which sounds like something that would be both interesting and non-Trumpish. The inviter was Radhika Bora, a law school student, who told Fein when inviting him that “Your presence would be a valuable contribution to the Forum’s dialogue on today’s political climate.”

But that didn’t last long, for one day after the invitation Fein found himself subject to an ideological inquiry. As WGBH reports:

Bora sent Fein an unexpected, ominous-sounding inquiry that bore no obvious relationship to the topic of his proposed lecture. “What are your views,” Ms. Bora asked Mr. Fein, “as to the historical accuracy of the claim that an Armenian genocide occurred after the First World War?”

Fein should have recognized immediately the import of the question. He and others who have studied, written, and litigated about the historical and legal controversy over the “Armenian Genocide” have learned that the debate is more of a war than a routine scholarly, historical, or legal debate. A certain tyranny governs this whole area of historical inquiry on both sides of the divide. Armenians and their supporters claim that Ottoman Turkish forces, in the waning days of World War I, committed Genocide against their Armenian neighbors. Turkey and its supporters, while generally admitting that there was large-scale killing of Armenians, deny that the conflict rose to the United Nations’ technical legal definition of “genocide” – the attempt to wipe out an entire ethnic or national community on the basis of ethnicity or nationality and for no other reason sanctioned by the laws of war. The debate remains bitter to this day, with neither the Armenians nor the Turks giving any quarter.

I recognize this subject is controversial, though from what I know there’s no doubt that the Turks wiped out thousands of Armenians—and on the grounds that they were Armenian. Whether this rises to the technical level of “genocide” is above my pay grade. But who cares? It happened and it is reprehensible.

But what’s also reprehensible is that because Fein gave his own views that didn’t align with Bora’s, he was disinvited. And the Armenian/Turkish matter had absolutely nothing to do with his talk:

Fein, from his vantage point of lawyer and scholar, takes the position that the slaughter of the Armenians, while ghastly, does not rise to the legal definition of “genocide.” He has written on the subject and has even provided expert evidence, and legal representation, to groups seeking to rebut accusations of an Armenian Genocide.

Fein explained to Bora the nature, nuances and historical basis of his views on the Armenian Genocide question, but it was, predictably, to no avail. Facts do not much matter when someone in Fein’s position is being accused, in effect, of being an apologist for, rather than a scholar of, genocide. The “denier’s” invocation of facts does not assuage the mind-set of the accuser.

Clearly Bora or someone else had looked up Fein’s views on the Armenian genocide and didn’t like them. On those grounds, she disinvited him from speaking at Harvard:

On February 6th, Fein received an email from Bora stating: “I regret to inform you that the Board of the Harvard Law School Forum must retract its invitation to speak at the Forum this spring. Unfortunately, the rest of the Board is not comfortable with inviting you to speak this spring as it appears our views on the Ottoman action against Armenians after World War I diverge slightly from yours.”

Diverge slightly, she said! And on those grounds Fein was disinvted. From speaking at Harvard Law School!

I happen to have some affection for my Ph.D. alma mater, and some hope that it would foster free speech. To disinvite Fein because he explained his views on the Armenian genocide, and on the grounds that those views didn’t align with those of the Law School Forum, is the height of stupidity. I am in fact flabbergasted.

Harvard has become more social-justicey in recent years, especially under the Presidency of the now departed Drew Faust. The Dean issued social-justice placemats to student to give them “talking points” for the holidays, and they banned Harvard students from having leadership positions if they joined off-campus single-sex “finals clubs,” which applied to both men and women. Maybe things will change under the new President, but here we see how Authoritarian Leftism has infected Harvard, and how it’s preventing students from hearing what sounded like an enlightening talk.

Shame on you, Ms. Bora and your censorious Law School Forum!

22 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted March 7, 2019 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. Posted March 7, 2019 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    A private school has the right to chose who they let speak on their campus. It us up to the trustees to intervene if the administration abuses that right and to steer the school on the right course.
    The examples you mention were the wrong decisions and action should be taken to make changes.
    If the trustees agree with what Harvard is doing then appears the whole generation is going in the wrong direction. That is difficult to correct. It us up to the next generation to get back on course.

    • Posted March 7, 2019 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      Yes, of course I recognize, and have always recognized, that private schools don’t have to abide by the First Amendment. But Harvard should, as it’s regarded as an exemplary school.

      • Posted March 7, 2019 at 11:15 am | Permalink

        I agree they should, but the question I was looking at is what to do about it if they don’t. Write about it us about all we can do, and raise awareness to try to effect change.

  3. Posted March 7, 2019 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Okay, please enlighten me if my understanding of how social justice types view the Turks’ crimes against humanity.

    But I thought most SJWs were sort of in denial over, or at least ignorant about, the likelihood of the Turks’ genocide against the Armenians. The basic reason being, they all but literally do not believe that non-Western societies have ever perpetrated crimes against humanity.

    While that sounds like hyperbole, I’ve run into many social justice-y people who accept the above as an article of faith. For instance, some people believe the history of Islamic imperialism is fake news.

  4. Posted March 7, 2019 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Harvard is the Berkely of the East, and just as guilty of abrogation of free speech as the other “liberal” colleges out there. It is reprehensible that a institute of higher learning censored this speaker because his views did not agree with the university. Free speech is all about being allowed to say what one thinks, regardless of whether someone else agrees with one’s views or not. Censoring free speech is a major part of liberalism and socialism. We can all agree to disagree, without going to war over it — it just takes time, patience, and practice.

  5. Posted March 7, 2019 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    This is hard to fathom. JAC and I and others here “come of age” during the American War in Vietnam when freedom of speech was demonstrated in a very serious manner, and in some instances, as a matter of life or death. If I was at Harvard, I would be tempted to organize a protest demonstration against such narrow-minded thought police actions.

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 7, 2019 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    I have to wonder how much influence on this kind of nonsense going on at all schools can be traced somewhat to the mentality created by our internet platforms. Choose up your tribes – it’s war.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted March 7, 2019 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      After all, wasn’t it Harvard that first got Zucked.

  7. BJ
    Posted March 7, 2019 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    What I find most frightening about developments at many Ivy League schools over the last few years is that many of our most highly influential lawyers, politicians, leaders, etc. will be coming from these places, inculcated with a specific ideology that involves denigrating heretics and abrogating the rights of political opponents. This isn’t just about education and students on college campuses, but about the future of our country and the people who will have significant influence in all sectors of it, including law.

    I hold the same fears when it comes to something like the Trump administration, appointing people who have no business being appointed to certain judgeships and possibly having a severe influence on our judiciary in the other direction.

    We need to be producing people who have balance and aren’t motivated by ideology, but by logic, objectivity, and a zeal for the truth and an honest, more just system of government and law.

  8. Ross
    Posted March 7, 2019 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Ironically in a dispute around freedom of speech, in Turkish law it was (perhaps still is) illegal to call the mass murder of Armenians genocide. This law applied if you said it anywhere in the world – several French footballers of Armenian descent felt unable to travel to play against Turkey due to this law.

    Of course, Individual Turks railed against the law and stood up for the right to call it genocide, however uncomfortable this sounded.

    Ross

  9. Steve Gerrard
    Posted March 7, 2019 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    “Unfortunately, the rest of the Board is not comfortable with inviting you to speak this spring as it appears our views on the Ottoman action against Armenians after World War I diverge slightly from yours.”

    That is an astonishing sentence. It would be lame coming from some small liberal arts college; it is appalling coming from Harvard Law School. Does the board not know that law is all about arguing both sides of such questions before a court? That doing so and doing it well is the entire purpose of studying law?

    As Bora said “the rest of the Board,” I wonder if she does not share that pathetic view? She did also say “our views,” though, so I guess she does concur.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted March 7, 2019 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Since Bora sent the invitation, I wonder if she was also the one who retracted it. Is she hiding behind a board? If not, I wonder what other litmus tests the Board has for speakers relating to events of non-American History. Granting that the Turkish treatment of the Armenians was horrible, according to what I’ve read, is it really a touchpoint of American politics?

  10. CJColucci
    Posted March 7, 2019 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    The Harvard Law School Forum is a student-run organization, which invites people it wants to invite to address it. It can invite or disinvite whoever it pleases without let or hindrance from the Law School administration. Given this student’s name, I would guess that she has some skin in the game on the Turkish and Armenian perspectives concerning the horrors of 1914. I certainly agree with everyone who thinks that she acted foolishly, and that the Board, in going along, was equally foolish. Whoever chooses the leadership of the Forum — I doubt it is the Law School administration — ought to look into the crew now running it and either throw them out or set some rules. But this is, after all, a bunch of students deciding for themselves, however foolishly, whom they wish to invite to their podium to talk to them.

  11. Mark R.
    Posted March 7, 2019 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    This is one of the most random litmus tests I’ve encountered. It seems a large swath of our population is losing its grip on reality. (And I’m not talking about Trump supporters, but it fits them as well.)

  12. Posted March 7, 2019 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    So now they don’t want to listen to anyone whose views diverge even *slightly* from theirs??

  13. Posted March 7, 2019 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I disagree here. If I invite someone to speak and then find out that he denies the Armenian genocide (or the Holodomor, or the Holocaust), I’d also disinvite him. I don’t mind if other people invite him, or go to listen to him, I just wouldn’t want to have anything with him.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted March 7, 2019 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think he denied that it happened; he just denied the technical application of the term Genocide to what happened.

  14. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 7, 2019 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I used to listen to Bruce Fein commenting on legal issues on NPR and used to read the pieces he published in the ABA Journal. I almost always disagreed with him when he ventured into the political sphere, and often took issue with his views on legal doctrine. But he always struck me as an astute observer and keen analyst, and I always got something out of listening to or reading him.

    I’d damn well go hear him speak if he were appearing locally. And I don’t think it would kill students at Harvard Law to do likewise, either.

  15. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted March 7, 2019 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    The usual, and UN definition, is “intentional action to destroy a people … in whole or in part” [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genocide ].

    I assume one notion may be that deflating the sense of genocide is helping those who perpetrate them. And possibly the students are right in not giving Fein monetary and public support, they are not baring him from other venues. This happens all the time here in Sweden, you cannot forbid it and the governments usually support the practice to minimize conflict – the discussion is on the border cases.

  16. Posted March 8, 2019 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I won’t comment on the disinvite. But is it possible the debate over the genocide or not is about misinterpreting a stipulative definition?


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