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Harvard flap prompts query: How free is campus speech?

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In the two weeks since Harvard University president Lawrence Summers suggested that innate differences between the sexes may partly account for male dominance in science and math, the ensuing frenzy of discussion has become a kind of national Rorschach test.

Editorialists excoriate his sexism or applaud his candor. The National Organization for Women has called for his resignation. Academics are poring over studies that deal with nature, nurture, and gender differences.

Dr. Summers's comments - which he said were intended to provoke discussion about why women were underrepresented in top science posts - have ended up raising an even larger question: Have universities become so steeped in sensitivities that certain topics can't be openly discussed?

Historically, ivory towers have been society's bulwarks of free intellectual exploration. But critics say that role is jeopardized on issues ranging from gender and race to religion and the politics of the Middle East.

"I could give example after example where speech that is considered offensive by any particular group that has a disproportionate amount of power on the campus is subject to censorship and repression," says David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties organization that works on college campuses. "It gives the most sensitive person the veto power on debate and discussion."

Many disagree with that assessment. But the Summers flap has revived a longstanding debate on the subject - often waged along ideological lines over whether campuses are hostile to those with conservative ideas.


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