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Harvard student club removes ‘free speech’ from event name to avoid shutdown by officials

Can an administrator shut down any ‘controversial’ event?

“Free speech” is such a touchy subject at Harvard University that a student club took the phrase out of an event name so it would be approved by administrators.

The Harvard Libertarian Club has been “walking around eggshells” to avoid having its events shut down, board member Natalie Bao Tran told The College Fix in a phone interview.

The club co-hosted an April 19 event with Ideas Beyond Borders, which “promotes the free exchange of ideas and defends human rights … to counter extremist narratives and authoritarian institutions.”

It featured speakers including Ideas Beyond Borders founder Faisal Saeed Al Mutar and Flemming Rose, who published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed as editor of a Danish newspaper in 2005. A film crew recorded the event for a coming documentary about Al Mutar and Rose.

Harvard media relations has yet to respond to Fix phone and email inquiries about Associate Dean of Student Engagement Alexander Miller, whose interactions with and alleged authority over the HLC are at issue.

Pulled out after ‘administrative debacle’

The club’s history with Miller led it to take precautions and proactively change the event title, lest the associate dean try to shut it down, according to Tran.

“The event title originally was ‘Why Minorities Need Free Speech,’ but knowing the dean [Miller] we went with ‘Dissent From Minorities Within Minorities,’ even though they convey the same things,” she told The Fix.

Melissa Chen, managing director of Ideas Beyond Borders, made public the HLC’s reasoning for the title change in a tweet thread on the event April 19. (She later confirmed she meant to cite the administration, not the “student union.”)

MORE: University disinvites Mohammed cartoon editor for ‘academic freedom’

The purpose of the event was to “explore the intersections of free speech” with a focus on Islam and “how minorities can utilize free speech against oppression,” Tran said.

In addition to Al Mutar and Rose, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, the speakers included Mustafa Akyol, the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, and Jacob McHangama, founder and director of Justitia, a Danish human-rights think tank.

Tran made clear that Miller did not tell the club to rename the April 19 event, because it assumed that “free speech” in the title would draw his ire.

She said Miller expressed discomfort with an event last semester titled “Unsafe Space: Is Political Correctness Why Trump Won?” It was part of Spiked magazine’s tour of the same name.

In an email laying out the “roadblocks” the HLC faced from the administration last semester, Tran said Miller was worried the event would be controversial and might stir protests.

The club had “several emails and meetings” with the associate dean, who set out several “guidelines” for the event: “no logo and branding from sponsors, no live-streaming is strongly preferred, and security will be on site.”

Spiked explained these guidelines to panelist Steven Pinker, the Harvard linguist and author, and Pinker in turn convinced Miller to drop the restrictions, though Tran doesn’t know how Pinker convinced the associate dean.

The HLC was originally slated to host the “Unsafe Space” event, “but after having gone through the administrative debacle,” the club pulled out and “let” the Harvard College Open Campus Initiative take its place as the local sponsor, Tran said in a text message: “It seems like we were no longer needed” as Pinker and Spiked continued talking to Miller. (HLC’s name is not on the Facebook page for the event.)

“Because of that we were very careful with who we wanted to come” to the April 19 Ideas Beyond Borders event (below), Tran said in a phone call. “We had to book a smaller venue … we wanted to have a bigger venue, but because of the roadblocks last semester we were afraid of getting shut down.”

MORE: American U. cancels ‘unsafe space’ event without warning

She claimed that Miller has the authority to shut down an event if he believes it might cause “controversy.” Miller has not responded to emails and calls from The Fix since Thursday seeking comment on Tran’s allegations.

Harvard College’s Office of Student Life, where Miller serves under Dean of Students Katherine O’Dair, has a “Free Speech” section under its policies and resources. It specifically highlights “controversial speakers or programs”:

Student organizations should align their programming with the value of free speech and put measures into place that protect free speech, particularly if they are hosting an event where these principles have the potential to be compromised.  Please contact Amy Vest with any concerns and/or to seek assistance with controversial speakers or programs. The Office of the Dean of Harvard College reserves the right to cancel an event which it deems to pose a risk to the safety or learning environment of Harvard College.

“I wish the dean [Miller, below] didn’t give us that much trouble because we couldn’t advertise the event like we wanted,” Tran told The Fix in a call.

MORE: Students confront Flemming Rose: ‘fear for our safety’

‘If we were to follow that rule, we could never have speakers’

Tran said she didn’t want the club to fight back because she was personally afraid the HLC could lose its “official recognition” from Harvard, which would deprive it the ability to “reserve rooms and hold meetings.”

In regard to Miller’s problem with the “Unsafe Space” event being sponsored by an outside organization, the associate dean was citing school policy on co-sponsorship, which bans such organizations from using students organizations “as a vehicle” to host events on campus.

Student clubs “host sponsored events anyway” in spite of this rule, which “impedes on our freedom of association,” Tran said: “If we were to follow that rule, we could never have speakers. Because all of the speakers we had in the past were affiliated with a third party.”

The Fix reached Harvard media relations on Friday and was asked to provide contact information so the office could respond to questions. The office has not responded as of Monday night.

Those who missed the Ideas Beyond Borders event can watch an archived video or see some footage in a documentary produced by Explore Films, which makes films that are “raw, personal” and “are proven to call people to action.” It is planned for release in theaters in the next year.

“This is an important issue because people don’t often think about minorities utilizing their free speech rights in order to speak up against oppression,” Tran told The Fix.

MORE: Club says American U. canceled ‘unsafe space’ because they mislabeled it

IMAGE: Harvard Libertarian Club/Facebook

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Diamond Braxton -- University of Houston