Protecting Freedom of Expression at Harvard – Summary and Rhetorical Analysis

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Derek Bok, a previous president of Harvard University, presents his argument in defense of free speech at Harvard in “protecting Freedom of Expression at Harvard. Bok introduces the problem with an incident at Harvard when two students hung Confederate flags in public view and describes students’ reactions. While some students urged that Harvard requires the removal of symbols, others considered those symbols a form of free speech, and one student protested the flags by displaying a swastika. Bok proceeds with his argument by providing background of how different universities have resolved similar conflicts in different ways, by enacting codes or refusal to impose such restrictions. The major premise of his argument is that “the display of swastikas or Confederate flags clearly falls within the protection of the free speech clause of the First Amendment.” Thus, though he regrets that the students involved behaved in this fashion, Bok claims that censorship is dangerous and goes against the value of communication and American principles of democracy. He concludes his argument by suggesting that instead of enforcing codes, and thus violating the right to free speech, it would be better either to ignore such communications or to speak with those who perform insensitive acts.

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Throughout the essay 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.

Bok weakens his argument by his appeal to credibility and the qualifiers he uses to do it. Instead of taking a strong stance on the incident, he hesitates and says, “I share this view and regret...” instead of stating strong emotions like “outraged,” “angered,” etc. Not only does he create an image of someone who hates to offend people’s feelings, but also a person who is extremely careful with their diction: “as I read them...,” “I suspect...,” “I have difficulty understanding... “. Moreover, while stating the possible repercussions of enforcing codes and limiting any form of freedom of speech, another qualifier, “I suspect” further weakens Bok’s argument as well as destructs the appeal to credibility he attempts to establish in the beginning of his reasoning. Instead of further strengthening his position by various qualifiers and playing on the appeal to credibility he establishes earlier, Bok treads lightly when he explains his personal understanding of swastikas and Confederate flags as symbols protected by the First Amendment, while disregarding the fact that this position affects another issue of democracy, respect for diversity both in American society and on campus. The qualifier “as I read them” in regards to court’s ruling, weakens Bok’s stance on the very basis of his argument. Overall, the impression Bok generates with his choice of words is that of a cautious lawyer treading unknown waters and hiding his true feelings behind meticulously selected words in an attempt not to anger either side of his readers. Which takes power from his words and the main point of the essay.

The problem with his logic in the essay is the fact that he didn’t define his terms. When talking about anything, especially something as serious as human rights, defining terms is important so that everyone who reads the essay is on the same page. To many people free speech is either two things, inclusive to every form of speech, or its not and it should exclude hateful types of speech.

Another reason his logical reasoning is not effective, is implication of cause and effect strategy, while it helps Bok explain his reason against limiting any kind of communication, his word choices, such as “I suspect,” and “rather than” still do not allow him to demonstrate a firm stand on the issue. The mild tone Bok uses while discussing both sides of the controversy and suggesting solutions to resolve the conflict to both party’s satisfaction weakens his persuasiveness even more. The tone also suggests sooner conciliatory position than a call for hard decisions which could offend one of the parties. Bok’s tone sounds almost apologetic and thus ruins the major warrant of his claim. Derek Bok organizes his argument by first describing the problem, then presenting both sides of approaches to resolving it, and finally explaining his personal stand on the issue. The rhetorical structure of such approach allows Bok present the argument fairly by conceding to the proponents of speech code enforcement that display of Confederate flags or swastikas is indeed insensitive and offensive. This pattern of organization also allows Bok to distinguish between the appropriateness of such communications and their status under the First Amendment.

Though it seems that Bok constructs a well-organized, fair, and effective argument, the precedent he uses to start his essay immediately weakens his persuasiveness. While his qualifiers and diction further ruins not only his appeal to ethos but the strength of the argument as a whole.

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