Racial Harassment Sparks Free Speech Debate at Harvard Law

Article excerpt

As Cornel West's departure from Harvard University's Afro-- American Studies department grabbed headlines last spring, another controversy was brewing on the Cambridge, Mass., campus, at Harvard Law School.

Between March and April, several minority students complained of racial harassment. In one case, a first-year law student used the epithet "nig" in an online course notebook. When an African American classmate complained, anonymous leaflets appeared in student mail-- boxes bearing swastikas and anti-Semitic remarks.

Minority student group leaders like Joshua Bloodworth, president of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), were alarmed by the implications of these episodes in an academic environment. "There is a certain level of intolerance at Harvard Law School that does intimidate and silence students in the classroom," Bloodworth says.

About 28 percent of the law school's students are minorities, and approximately 11 percent of its first-year students are African American.

Last spring, law school Dean Robert C. Clark established the Committee on Healthy Diversity to devise institutional responses to the incidents. But debate flared in November after a town hall meeting in which BLSA members urged the school to adopt a racial harassment policy. Some worry this will amount to a "speech code" that could punish students and professors for exercising their right to free speech.

"I'm waiting to hear what a speech code would look like," says Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz. He warns that speech regulations could cause younger professors in particular "to stay away from discussing sensitive racial issues for fear of offending someone."

But Bloodworth and other BLSA officials insist restrictions on free speech aren't what they're after. …