Race activists confront free speech activists at Harvard Law

Tensions are rising at Harvard Law School (HLS) after a confrontation between student activist group Reclaim Harvard Law (RHL) and students who are concerned about freedom of speech.

Last week, HLS student Bill Barlow put up posters—which read “Reclaim Harvard Law = Trump”— challenging RHL’s occupation of Caspersen Student Center lounge—which RHL is referring to as “Belinda Hall”—because, as Barlow explained to The Harvard Crimson, both Trump and RHL “support the suppression of dissent, and, to a certain extent, both of them support or endorse racist ideologies.”

RHL was founded in the fall of 2015 with the goal of “bringing together various marginalized student groups that have requested changes for decades, [and] aims to combat our school’s systemic racism and exclusion.”

According to RHL’s website, the purpose behind occupying Belinda Hall is to create its own Office of Diversity and Inclusion “for those marginalized by Harvard Law School.” HLS’s administration has refused refusing to provide support for an office of diversity and inclusion, the website claims.

RHL demands the administration "hire critical race theorists, promote staff of color to management positions, and educate staff and students about cultural competency.

After the posters were removed by the activists, Barlow appealed to the administration. However, Dean of Students Marcia Sells reportedly explained to Barlow that, because of Harvard’s status as a 501(c)(3) organization, it can’t engage in political campaigns for elected office.

Barlow continued his postering efforts, accusing RHL of censorship on the grounds that Belinda Hall is a public space where any student should be allowed to speak freely. These were taken down as well.

“This is an occupation. This is our space, our house. Let Bill Barlow put up posters anywhere else, just not here,” RHL member Alexander Clayborne said.

Barlow and several other students continued to put up other posters throughout the week. On Friday, Barlow and several supporters returned to Belinda Hall to debate with RHL and put up another round of posters; whenever a poster was put up, however, RHL would take them down and move them to a specially designated wall space labeled, “Privilege.”

Prior to the confrontation between RHL and other students, Dean Sells, who was present at Belinda Hall, issued a statement to The Harvard Law Record saying the university’s commitment to freedom of speech means requiring those who use shared space to express themselves to also respect the rights of others to do the same.

Law School Dean Martha Minow reiterated Sells’ statement on Friday morning, reminding students that Belinda Hall is a communal space available to all students and that removing posters is a violation of the school’s Protest and Dissent Guidelines.

Clayborne disagrees with this and says that everything posted in Belinda Hall must be approved by RHS only.

“Belinda Hall has been reclaimed by Reclaim HLS for the purpose of creating an anti-racist environment for all and, accordingly, has a new governing body to protect that cause in a way that the institution’s existing structure...has not,” Clayborne stated.

In order to post something in Belinda Hall, the group says it must first be voted on by the “plenary committee,” which Barlow says wasn’t implemented until right after his Trump posters were hung.

“Reclaim Harvard Law has removed over 50 anti-Reclaim posters from the lounge area. This is absolutely unacceptable and a violation of the ethics of free speech that we uphold here at [HLS],” Barlow told The Record.

RHL’s members argued in an April Fools’ Day opinion piece written for Record that they don’t believe that they are stepping on free speech.

“[W]e are a group choosing what to post in its own space...and there are countless other—white—spaces on the campus in which this individual can express his views, and has,” RHL said. “This is not the first time that supposedly neutral principles of free speech have been invoked to protect white privilege—our fight is to make it the last.”

In response to RHL’s pushback, student Marlen Thaten wrote an open letter for The Record titled “Reclaim Harvard Law, please stop destroying yourself,” telling them, “[y]ou broke me today.”

Thaten says he is “shocked” and “appalled” by the actions RHL has taken, and that he was previously a staunch supporter of their cause, which he now labels as “self-righteousness.”

“But now things have taken a turn in a very unsettling direction. You have taken over Belinda Hall not just physically, but mentally. Everyone who dares to disagree with you is labeled a racist or an extremist...Seriously? You are turning from the oppressed into the oppressor, and you don’t even notice it,” Thaten says.

Tess Nolizwe Peacock, a student and member of RHL, fired back with a strongly worded response to Thaten’s letter, reminding him and others that, “Belinda Hall is designed to disrupt the white-washed wall of elitism that otherwise pervades the campus. And make no mistake—it is an occupation.”

Peacock insists this isn’t a free speech issue, but “a power play about a bully who wants to destroy everything you said you admired about Reclaim in the first place. You have been baited too.”

Thaten responded asking Peacock where exactly the movement is supposed to go from here and whether this is how they think a society should be run.

“Opening a place for ‘diversity and inclusion’ just to shut everyone out who is not of your opinion? The irony seems to be lost on you,” Thaten retorted.

“To erode [free speech], in the name of whatever ‘good’ purpose, is the first step down a very dangerous path. And to go so far as to make free speech subject to ‘majority approval’ is an outright disastrous proposition. It scares me that a group of astounding and intelligent people like you could come to such a conclusion,” Thaten says.

The Record reportedlyhas video evidence of RHS activists tearing down the posters and moving them but has declined to share them as they don’t want to “out” students.

“Indeed, the threat of being videotaped would accomplish the opposite of what the Record has been trying to accomplish all year. It would chill speech and productive dialogue,” The Record editor-in-chief Michael Shammas says.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @brianledtke