The Harvard University English Department played their free speech cards wrong this week. Instead of acting in the interest of free and open discussion of sensitive issues, for which the department should be among the first to advocate, the department canceled the appearance of a poet whose inflammatory comments about Israel’s role in the Middle East conflict drew concern from Harvard President Lawrence Summers and a number of students and faculty. Though his past words may have caused consternation among those sensitive to anti-Semitism, the poet should have been allowed to make his scheduled appearance in the interest of promoting the right to speak about those with viewpoints outside the mainstream.
The university’s English department had originally invited the poet, Tom Paulin, for a public poetry reading Saturday night, according to The Boston Globe. Some students and faculty members had been planning a boycott of the event, and Summers made his concerns known to English department members in recent weeks. Paulin refers to the Israeli Army as a “Zionist SS” in one of his poems, has said American-born residents of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip “should be shot dead” and has referred to them as “Nazis” and “racists,” according to the Globe.
The department’s actions are beyond repair. They cannot re-invite Paulin without turning his mere appearance into what it was not intended to be: an overly-politicized event. Instead, the department should use its missteps as a lesson for the future. Rather than disallowing appearances from people with true academic worth but politically radical views, they should encourage input from all points on the political spectrum. Not only can their contributions to literature be valuable to students, but the political feelings they stir can teach important lessons about how to react to those with whom you disagree.
University Wire — Boston University