Back to Harvard and Gaza: Will Harvard Do the Right Thing?


Friday, July 14, 2006

Dear Louise Ryan,

Your exchange of letters with John Spritzler was forwarded to me by George Salzman who received them from John. George and I share a belief that more horizontal dialogue among ordinary persons is urgently needed if ever a way is to be found out of the dire straits in which we find ourselves. Hence this letter.

In the hope, which seems warranted, that you are not closed to further reflection on the matter, I'm offering some comments on the issue that has arisen.

At root, it is a question of whether Harvard's property rights trump John's civil rights. I don't believe that they do. Therefore, I think John erred when he readily agreed not to email his colleagues if you ordered him not to. The reason (principle) behind your order is irrelevant, because you have no such right to begin with. If you as John's boss and as a representative of the Harvard Corporation can stop him from emailing his colleagues using their departmental addresses, what else can you stop him from doing? Could you stop him from distributing leaflets to his workmates? What about handwritten letters? Could he drop handwritten letters in their departmental mail boxes? But why stop at written communications? What about talk, around the water cooler, say, or on lunch break? Could you order him not to discuss certain topics while on Harvard premises? Could you order him not to use the telephones in the office, which are owned by Harvard, to discuss "political activism?" (By the way, all the corporate propaganda that surges around Harvard in torrents every day is most definitely "political activism.")

Corporations do this every day, and always have, from their earliest days. As far as corporations are concerned, the Bill of Rights stops at the factory gate or office door. Apparently you have fallen (to put the nicest gloss on it) into this way of thinking. You seem to think that John's right of free speech is suspended when he is on Harvard premises, because the departmental email system is "owned" by Harvard, which can therefore dictate how it will be used.

The idea that property rights trump civil rights was thoroughly demolished some years back by Robert Dahl in a little book called A Preface to Economic Democracy. Dahl was not writing from a left position (as traditionally defined). He was a liberal. Yet his argument that civil rights trump property rights was exhaustive and persuasive. He was bemoaning the fact that our civil rights as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights have never been applied to the economic realm and that therefore our democracy is woefully incomplete. Harvard falls into this category as a privately owned corporation chartered by the state.

The dangers we face currently however have already advanced way beyond the denial of free speech on private property. They also extend into the public realm -- public schools (at all levels, including universities), public parks, public streets, public buildings, public airwaves, public libraries. The climate of repression is daily gaining strength across the nation. I have been collecting reports of instances of such repression for the past six or seven years. It is a very thick file. Matthew Rothschild, editor of Progressive magazine, keeps an online archive about such incidents, in his McCarthyism Watch, at < >. It is worth examining.

The contemporary threats to our civil liberties have been usefully summarized also in a couple of outstanding books.

Elaine Cassel, The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Have Dismantled the Bill of Rights (2004, 208 pages).

Nat Hentoff, The War on the Bill of Rights -- And the Gathering Resistance (2003, 160 pages).

I hope you will rescind your restrictions on John Spritzler's free speech rights, and join the struggle to preserve our liberties across the board, instead of succumbing to the climate of intolerance and repression which is rapidly turning the United States into a police state.

James Herod

Back to Harvard and Gaza: Will Harvard Do the Right Thing?