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The Death of Parody at Harvard Law

The now-notorious Barack Obama cover of The New Yorker, depicting the candidate as a flag-burning Muslim, was satire, to be sure. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it outraged many. But what was surprising -- at least to civil-liberties lawyer Harvey A. Silverglate -- was the response of Obama himself, whose spokesman called the cover "tasteless and offensive." "How can Obama, such a brilliant student of American law, politics, and culture, not get the joke — or at least not recognize that the joke was on his enemies?" Silverglate wondered. Then it occurred to him: the Harvard Factor.

As Silverglate relates in an article published this week in The Boston Phoenix, Harvard Law School wrestled in the early 1990s with the appropriateness of punishing students for engaging in satire and parody. At issue was a piece published in the Harvard Law Review's annual April Fool's Day issue, the Harvard Law Revue, in 1992, just a year after Obama, who'd been editor of the Law Review, graduated. The Law Revue piece, which Silverglate says was scathing, parodied an article just published in the Law Review that had been written by Mary Joe Frug, a feminist law professor who had been working on the article when she was murdered outside her Cambridge apartment. The parody article provoked a firestorm on campus, resulting in the law school's adoption of sexual harassment guidelines that Silverglate describes as an 11-page censorship code. In the "radioactive atmosphere" that permeated the campus at the time, even faculty members known for their support of free speech voted for the code, he writes.

Silverglate sees what happened at Harvard as symptomatic of a far more widespread trend to muzzle politically incorrect speech. It was a trend that began to emerge while Obama was still at Harvard and it is one, Silverglate believes, where Obama could help turn the course. "If Obama wants to be the nation's leader, he can start leading here. He needs to leave the atmosphere of censorship at the Harvard Law School and join the ranks of free men and women."

In a postscript to the article posted to his blog The Free for All, Silverglate writes that this piece provoked a greater response than any he's written in recent memory. Much of the response focused on his condemnation of Harvard Law and some came from among the school's current faculty and administrators. One said that Silverglate understated the degree of faculty opposition to the guidelines, while others debated whether the atmosphere has changed at the school. Silverglate believes parody would fare no better today at Harvard: "The sad fact, in my estimation, remains: There are still things Harvard Law students could safely say in Harvard Square that they wouldn't dare utter in Harvard Yard."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on August 5, 2008 at 12:41 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

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