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Bad lessons
Free speech under attack at Harvard. Plus, it may be time to put local campaign-finance reform on the back burner.


LAST WEEK, Nick Will, the editor of the Harbus, a weekly student paper for Harvard Business School, resigned after HBS officials threatened him with sanctions for the content of a cartoon that they said violated the schoolís Community Standards. The cartoon in question, titled "CareerDink," made fun of Career Link, a Web-based service operated by the schoolís Career Services office that allows students to post résumés, review the history of recruiting companies, and schedule job interviews. The service has been in place for just two years and has been plagued with technical glitches.

The cartoon parodied the error messages students often get when they try to post information to Career Linkís server and itís incapacitated with heavy traffic, as it is on a frequent basis. One of the error messages included the phrase "incompetent morons." This is what HBS officials are claiming violates the schoolís Community Standards.

Days after the cartoon was published, four Harvard Business School bigwigs including Dean Kim B. Clark and MBA program director Steven Nelson met to discuss the cartoon. They elected to express their displeasure with Will. He was called into a 7 a.m. November 4 meeting with Nelson during which Will was told he was "personally liable" for all content in the paper, according to Willís resignation letter, which he tendered to Harbusís board of directors two days later, on November 6.

In pondering Harvardís handling of this matter, the phrase "incompetent morons" comes to mind. For one, Clark, Nelson, and the other two HBS officials present at the cartoon summit ó HBS senior associate dean Walter Kester and HBS Career Services office head Matthew Merrick ó should have better things to do with their time. More important, their actions are a clear violation of free-speech standards. Harbus is an independent entity. It has a board of directors, to which the editor reports.

Will asked the Harbus News Corporationís legal counsel to review the cartoon. Specifically, he wanted to know if "CareerDink" crossed any legal lines. He reports in his resignation letter that Harbusís chief counsel and "two conferring attorneys unanimously

As Willís resignation letter makes clear, Nelson requested that Harbus make up for the cartoon by writing articles in the future that were flattering to Career Services. Even worse, as Will writes, Nelson "also warned me that I would be held personally accountable as a student for all content in The Harbus and could be called in for further action in the future ó which could register on my personal student record ó should he or someone else in the administration disagree with my editorial judgment. Therefore he suggested I steer clear of all questionable content in future issues."

Itís hard to know where to begin with this. HBS officials, from the dean on down, have violated free-speech standards. They have threatened a student with their power. They have intimidated him. They have acted more like Enron chief executives than university officials. Their behavior has been disgusting.

Who knows how this will resolve itself. Will has resigned. Itís hard to imagine anyone stepping up to replace him under the conditions imposed by Nelson. As Will notes, any future editor will need "limited liability protection" thanks to Nelsonís threats.

Harvard Business School has taught their future business executives one important lesson ó donít piss off the boss ó but itís shamed itself in the process.

ON ELECTION DAY, Massachusetts voters weighed in ó again ó on campaign-finance reform. This time, they said no to it in overwhelming numbers. In a nonbinding referendum ó a ballot initiative that doesnít create law, but merely advises legislators of voter sentiment ó 76 percent of voters said they didnít want to use "taxpayer money" to "fund political campaigns." Four years ago, they said yes, in overwhelming numbers, to the same question, though it was phrased differently. And in 11 House districts where voters were presented with a nonbinding referendum asking them to instruct their state reps to "fully implement and fund the stateís voter-approved Clean Elections Law," voters in all 11 districts gave their approval. (In some of these districts, voters said they were against "taxpayer-funded" elections even though they voted in favor of the "Clean Elections Law.")

What can we learn from this? Itís probably safe to say that voters want "clean" elections ó the name of the law they passed by a three-to-one margin in 1998. They want to see an end to corporate influence via contributions. They want to see an end to special-interest lobbying. They want to see politicians elected to office who are beholden to one constituency and one constituency only ó the voters. But they donít want to pay for it.

Locally, this is a huge blow to progressives and good-government advocates whoíve worked passionately on this cause. Indeed, the Phoenix has editorialized on many occasions in favor of the Clean Elections Law and has called upon the state legislature to fund the initiative. But itís time to put this issue aside. In this climate of plummeting revenues and widening budget gaps (the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center released a report this week estimating next yearís budget deficit at $1.4 billion), itís hard to make the case for setting aside millions of dollars to fund political campaigns.

Up in Maine, which is an often-cited example of a place where Clean Elections work, gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Carter of the Green Party spent $900,000 of public funds and won about 10 percent of the statewide vote last week. That was about three percentage points more than what he got in 1994, when he ran on $40,000 worth of privately raised funds. Itís time to reassess just what it is that publicly funded campaigns buy.

That said, House Speaker Tom Finneranís jihad against Clean Elections has been an ugly spectacle. He flouted the will of voters by stalling implementation of the law, making gubernatorial candidates Warren Tolman and Jill Stein go to court to force the legislature to fund the law. He didnít have the courage to bring the matter before the House of Representatives, which, with the Senate, could have taken a vote to overturn the law. And Finneran, who oversees creation of the state budget each spring ó and who holds a fundraiser every year during budget week with lobbyists and other influence peddlers with a more than passing interest in what gets funded ó is the walking, talking epitome of why campaign-finance reform is needed.

Rather than focus on public financing of political campaigns, which does not have voter backing, progressives and other good-government types might set their sights on a bit of reform that voters do support: stripping Finneran of his leadership post.

Voters in 18 House districts across the state were presented with a nonbinding referendum asking whether their state representatives should "be instructed not to vote for Thomas M. Finneran of Boston for Speaker" of the House of Representatives. The measure passed in all 18 districts. Clearly, the Speaker is not a popular politician.

In January, state representatives will elect their new House Speaker. And if we learned anything about the mood of the Commonwealth during last weekís election, it was this: voters are fed up with the "mess on Beacon Hill," as Governor-elect Mitt Romney tediously puts it. No one is more emblematic of that mess than Finneran. Itís time the reps put someone else in charge. As for the 18 sent to office with a mandate to do just that (see below), weíll be watching.

State representatives elected in districts where voters asked that Finneranís re-election as House Speaker not be supported:

Michael Costello of Amesbury

Anthony Verga of Essex

Mary Grant of Beverly

Michael Ruane of Salem

Doug Petersen of Marblehead

Theodore Speliotis of Danvers

David Torrisi of Lawrence

Peter Kocot of Northampton

John Skibak of Easthampton

Cory Atkins of Acton

Tim Toomey of Cambridge

Rachel Kaprielian of Watertown

Michael Festa of Melrose

Colleen Garry of Dracut

Robert Coughlin of Dedham

Paul Demakis of Boston

Liz Malia of Jamaica Plain

Jeffrey Sanchez of Boston

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters@phx.com

 

Issue Date: November 14 - 21, 2002
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