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Marty Peretz, Harvard, and the First Amendment

September 28, 2010

 I attended the Harvard Social Studies concentration’s 50th anniversary celebration on September 25, well aware of the controversy over the University’s naming an undergraduate research scholarship in honor of New Republic editor-in-chief, Martin Peretz.  Generating the conflict were Peretz’s long history of contemptuous writings about Muslims and other groups and especially his recent, disgraceful statement: “I wonder whether I need . . . pretend that [Muslims] are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”

Peretz later retracted the statement.  On the eve of Yom Kippur, he also claimed to be atoning, primarily in private, because “in this past year I have publicly committed the sin of wild and wounding language, especially hurtful to our Muslim brothers and sisters.”  But Harvard’s agreement to establish the scholarship in Peretz’s name cast a pall over what should have been a celebration of a wonderful Harvard major.  It was a disappointment to me, many Social Studies alumni, and other Harvard affiliates.  More importantly, Peretz’s initial statement is indicative of disturbing trends that seem to be gathering force now, almost ten years after 9/11.

The reasons that Harvard decided to accept the $650,000 collected by Peretz’s friends, despite his long history of statements displaying contempt for Muslims, Palestinians, and others, remain unclear.  With by far the largest endowment in higher education, Harvard needs the money less than other universities.  It seems therefore that the decision was a misguided effort to honor someone the administration actually believes deserves to have his name permanently attached to the University’s.  Or, more likely, it was an effort to please some of the powerful alumni donors who funded the endowment.   Among many others:  Al Gore; Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne; top BP attorney Jamie Gorelick (identified in the Social Studies program only as former Deputy Attorney General); and a former co-chair of a Harvard Fund gift committee, Lazard executive and chairman of the New Republic Advisory Board, Larry Grafstein (who I unknowingly sat across from over lunch and with whom I had a pleasant interchange).  
At the event itself, Peretz’s defenders included Dionne, Gorelick, and political theorist Michael Walzer.  They all rejected his views about Muslims and the First Amendment and distanced themselves from some of his other controversial statements.  Asked directly during Q & A about her rationale for organizing the fund, Gorelick noted only Peretz’s decades-old role as a teacher, during his time as a lecturer in the Social Studies department.  In a message this summer that kicked off the fundraising drive, Gorelick had elaborated further that the Peretz fund would “strengthen the College’s commitment to rigorous intellectual inquiry through significant research experiences.” Peretz’s recent writings call into question his own commitment to that end, however.
In defending the fund, Dionne quoted Rodney King asking, Why can’t we all just get along?  Walzer alluded to the many left-wing student protesters of decades past who Peretz ostensibly if secretly helped avoid expulsion or worse.  To catcalls from the audience, he also suggested that a close review of the writings of most in the audience would turn up remarks as questionable as Peretz’s.
Critics of Peretz and Harvard were more numerous and vocal at the event.  Protesters gathered outside and harried Peretz as he walked between buildings.  At the panels, there were sharp questions, particularly about the compatibility between Social Studies’ claims to uphold critical thinking and analytic rigor—and its honoring Peretz.
For his part, Peretz remained mostly silent.  In the original program, he and Robert Paul Wolff, the first head tutor for the social Studies program, had been scheduled as principal lunchtime speakers.  But with the controversy, the program was changed to include only Wolff as principal speaker—and to demote Peretz to brief follow-up remarks, along with other head tutors in attendance.  Wolff gave an impassioned speech about the program, lambasting Harvard for honoring Peretz who sat a few feet away.  Minutes later, Peretz took a stab at his critics for having “started and exploited” the controversy—and for being simply a bunch of “professors who are happy to get applause.” As for himself, he claimed to be happy to rest on the 30 or so messages of support he said he had received from ex-students.
Beyond the incident itself, Peretz’s original statement, despite its hasty retraction days later under a firestorm of criticism, is indicative of a broader and troubling current in the U.S today.  If the Editor-In-Chief of the New Republic can so easily state that the Constitution should protect me—but not those with whom I disagree—its fragility is underlined once again.
Of course, Peretz is free to say almost anything he wants under our First Amendment—even something as foolish as that others should have that right withdrawn by virtue of their religion.  By the same token, Muslims should be free to build the Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, despite the hyping of this exercise in religious free exercise as “offensive.”  Those who oppose gas drilling in Pennsylvania should be free to organize and protest without fear of monitoring by government contractors and agencies in the name of “homeland security.”  And, yes, cranks in Florida have the right to burn holy books.

Different as these cases are and hard as it is for many to accept, “offensive” or politically “dangerous” speech clearly merits protection under America’s First Amendment.  But for an institution like Harvard to celebrate a man who can make such irresponsible statements, thereby suggesting not just their legality but also their acceptability in elite public discourse, undermines the University’s claims to intellectual and social leadership. 

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Bob is a political science professor at Duquesne University who studies global norms, advocacy campaigns, and related subjects.