Protecting Freedom of Expression on the Campus

By Derek Bok


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For several years, universities have been struggling with the problem of trying to reconcile the rights of free speech with the desire to avoid racial tension. In recent weeks, such a controversy has sprung up at Harvard. Two students hung Confederate flags in public view, upsetting students who equate the Confederacy with slavery. A third student tried to protest the flags by displaying a swastika.

These incidents have provoked much discussion and disagreement. Some students have urged that Harvard require the removal of symbols that offend many members of the community. Others reply that such symbols are a form of free speech and should be protected.

Different universities have resolved similar conflicts in different ways. Some have enacted codes to protect their communities from forms of speech that are deemed to be insensitive to the feelings of other groups. Some have refused to impose such restrictions.

It is important to distinguish between the appropriateness of such communications and their status under the First Amendment. The fact that speech is protected under the First Amendment does not necessarily mean that it is right, proper, or civil. I am sure that the vast majority of Harvard students believe that hanging a Confederate flag in public view–or displaying a swastika in response–is insensitive and unwise because any satisfaction it gives to the students who display these symbols is far outweighed by the discomfort it causes to many others.

I share this view and regret that the students involved saw fit to behave in this fashion. Whether or not they merely wished to manifest their pride in the South–or to demonstrate the insensitivity of hanging Confederate flags by mounting another offensive symbol in return–they must have known that they would upset many fellow students and ignore the decent regard for the feelings of others so essential to building and preserving a strong and harmonious community.

To disapprove of a particular form of communication, however, is not enough to justify prohibiting it. We are faced with a clear example of the conflict between our commitment to free speech and our desire to foster a community founded on mutual respect. Our society has wrestled with this problem for many years. Interpreting the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has clearly struck the balance in favor of free speech.

While communities do have the right to regulate speech in order to uphold aesthetic standards (avoiding defacement of buildings) or to protect the public from disturbing noise, rules of this kind must be applied across the board and cannot be enforced selectively to prohibit certain kinds of messages but not others.

Under the Supreme Court’s rulings, as I read them, the display of swastikas or Confederate flags clearly falls within the protection of the free-speech clause of the First Amendment and cannot be forbidden simply because it offends the feelings of many members of the community. These rulings apply to all agencies of government, including public universities.

Although it is unclear to what extent the First Amendment is enforceable against private institutions, I have difficulty understanding why a university such as Harvard should have less free speech than the surrounding society–or than a public university.

One reason why the power of censorship is so dangerous is that it is extremely difficult to decide when a particular communication is offensive enough to warrant prohibition or to weigh the degree of offensiveness against the potential value of communication. If we begin to forbid flags, it is only a short step to prohibiting offensive speakers.

I suspect that no community will become humane and caring by restricting what its members can say. The worst offenders will simply find other ways to irritate and insult.

In addition, once we start to declare certain things “offensive,” with all the excitement and attention that will follow, I fear that much ingenuity will be exerted trying to test the limits, much time will be expended trying to draw tenuous distinctions, and the resulting publicity will eventually attract more attention to the offensive material than would ever have occurred otherwise.

Rather than prohibit such communications, with all the resulting risks, it would be better to ignore them, since students would then have little reason to create such displays and would soon abandon them. If this response is not possible–and one can understand why–the wisest course is to speak with those who perform insensitive acts and try to help them understand the effects of their actions on others.

Appropriate officials and faculty members should take the lead, as the Harvard House Masters have already done in this case. In talking with students, they should seek to educate and persuade, rather than resort to ridicule or intimidation, recognizing that only persuasion is likely to produce a lasting, beneficial effect. Through such efforts, I believe that we act in the manner most consistent with our ideals as an educational institution and most calculated to help us create a truly understanding, supportive community.


Source : The Boston Globe 25 March 1991.

A Student’s Rhetorical Analysis of an Argument

Notice how student Milena Ateyea analyzes Derek Bok’s essay about freedom of expression by focusing on his use of emotional, ethical, and logical appeals, by identifying his fallacies, and by evaluating the credibility of his evidence.


A Curse and a Blessing:

A Critical Review of Derek Bok’s “Protecting Freedom of Expression at Harvard”

By Milena Ateyea*

In 1991, when Derek Bok’s essay “Protecting Freedom of Expression at Harvard” was first published in the Boston Globe, I had just come to America to escape the oppressive Communist regime in Bulgaria. Perhaps my background explains why I support Bok’s argument that we should not put arbitrary limits on freedom of expression. Bok wrote the essay in response to a public display of Confederate flags and a swastika at Harvard, a situation that created a heated controversy among the students. As Bok notes, universities have struggled to achieve a balance between maintaining students’ right of free speech and avoiding racist attacks. When choices must be made, however, Bok argues for preserving freedom of expression.

In order to support his claim and bridge the controversy, Bok uses a variety of rhetorical strategies. The author first immerses the reader in the controversy by vividly describing the incident: two Harvard students had hung Confederate flags in public view, thereby “upsetting students who equate the Confederacy with slavery” (51). Another student, protesting the flags, decided to display an even more offensive symbol—the swastika. These actions provoked heated discussions among students. Some students believed that school officials should remove the offensive symbols, whereas others suggested that the symbols “are a form of free speech and should be protected” (51). Bok establishes common ground between the factions: he regrets the actions of the offenders but does not believe we should prohibit such actions just because we disagree with them.

The author earns the reader’s respect because of his knowledge and through his logical presentation of the issue. In partial support of his position, Bok refers to U.S. Supreme Court rulings, which remind us that “the display of swastikas or Confederate flags clearly falls within the protection of the free-speech clause of the First Amendment” (52). However, Bok commits the fallacy of slippery slope when he warns the reader against censorship, “If we begin to forbid flags, it is only a short step to prohibiting offensive speakers” (52). He also makes a hasty generalization when he claims that “no community will become humane and caring by restricting what its members can say” (52). Overall, Bok’s work lacks the kinds of evidence that statistics, interviews with students, and other representative examples of controversial conduct could provide. Thus, his essay initially fails to persuade all readers to make the leap from this specific situation to his general conclusion.

Throughout, Bok’s personal feelings are implied but not stated directly. As a lawyer who was president of Harvard for twenty years, Bok knows how to present his opinions respectfully without offending the feelings of the students. However, qualifying phrases like “I suspect that” and “Under the Supreme Court’s rulings, as I read them” could weaken the effectiveness of his position. Furthermore, Bok’s attempt to be fair to all seems to dilute the strength of his proposed solution. He suggests that one should either ignore the sensitive deeds in the hope that students might change their behavior, or talk to the offending students to help them comprehend how their behavior is affecting other students.

Nevertheless, although Bok’s proposed solution to the controversy does not appear at first reading to be very strong, it may ultimately be effective. To ignore the students or “to help them understand the effects of their actions on others” (52) may seem either too dismissive or too idealistic, but it aligns with the philosophy of an educational institution. By referring to the Harvard House Masters, Bok builds his own ethos with the support of senior faculty members who supervise the academic and disciplinary welfare of undergraduate students. Furthermore, Bok calls to his audience through the appeal to pathos in his final plea “to help us create a truly understanding, supportive community” (52). The emphasis on tolerance appeals to the audience’s feelings about the equality of humanity, and his solution is general enough that it can change with the times and adapt to community standards.

In writing this essay, Bok faced a challenging task: to write a short response to a specific situation that represents a very broad and controversial issue. Some people may find that freedom of expression is both a curse and a blessing because of the difficulties it creates. Bok’s argument proves effective due to his strong logical reference to the First Amendment and his emphasis on the educational purpose of his institution, thus appealing to his ethos. As one who has lived under a regime that permitted very limited, censored expression, I am all too aware that I could not have written this response in 1991 in Bulgaria. As a result, I agree with Derek Bok that freedom of expression is a blessing, in spite of any temporary problems associated with it.


Work Cited

Bok, Derek. “Protecting Freedom of Expression on the Campus.” Current Issues

and Enduring Questions. Ed. Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau. 6th ed. Boston:

Bedford, 2002. 51-52. Rpt. of “Protecting Freedom of Expression at Harvard.”

Boston Globe 25 May 1991.


Provocative title suggests Ateyea’s mixed response to Bok



Connects article to her own experience to build her own credibility (ethical appeal)



Provides brief overview of the context and the main idea of Bok’s argument



Ateyea identifies and concisely states Bok’s central claim



Transition sentence links Bok’s claim to strategies he uses to support it



Direct quotations show how Bok appeals to emotions through vivid description



Shows how Bok establishes common ground between the two positions


Emphasizes Bok’s credibility and Ateyea’s respect for him (ethical appeal)


Links Bok’s credibility to his use of logical appeal by referring to the First Amendment


Refers to Bok’s use of the fallacies of slippery slope and hasty generalization




Comments critically on the kinds of evidence Bok’s argument lacks





Reiterates Bok’s credibility



Identifies qualifying phrases that may weaken the claim



Analyzes weaknesses of Bok’s proposed solution



Raises possibility that Bok’s imperfect solution may work






Provides reasons why Bok’s solution may succeed










Summarizes Bok’s task


Ties conclusion back to the title


Clarifies evaluation of Bok’s argument by stating why it is effective


Concludes by returning to personal experience with censorship and oppression, which argues for accepting Bok’s solution




Includes a Works Cited entry for the essay



*Adapted and revised, 2012.


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