At the height of early-1990s conservative backlash over political correctness and “speech codes” on U.S. college campuses, Barack Obama participated in a panel event geared toward denying that restrictions on free expression were problematic, or happening at all.
The 1991 Harvard Law School yearbook quoted the future President of the United States virtually shrugging his shoulders at the thought that non-liberal white students might take offense at restrictions on speech that minority students found objectionable. “I don’t see a lot of conservatives getting upset if minorities feel silenced,” Obama said, flipping the argument around.
In addition to Obama, who was by then the former Harvard Law Review editor, the panel included several prominent Harvard law professors; the American Civil Liberties Union’s legal director; Justice Stephen Breyer, who then presided over the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit; and Brian Timmons, an Obama classmate who had been the managing editor of the Harvard Journal on Law and Public Policy, which describes itself as “the nation’s leading forum for conservative and libertarian legal scholarship.”
Some on the panel mocked the idea of political correctness stymieing free speech. “More voices are being heard on campuses,” said panelist Benjamin Schatz of the American Association of Physicians for Human Rights. “People who don’t like hearing them are complaining about political correctness.”
The ACLU’s John Powell denied political correctness led to a silencing effect, calling it impossible that “the dominant, white majority on college campuses is being silenced by the small number of minority and feminist students.”
Sally Greenberg of the Anti-Defamation League called for bans on “hate speech.” Professor Richard Parker, who taught Obama in 1989, wanted to punish only speech that was “intentional, persistent, pure, and patent abuse.”
“If you want a university that teaches strong moral precepts, you’d feel one way,” Breyer said. “If you want a university that mirrors the larger society and doesn’t try to influence people’s moral behavior through rules and regulations, you’d come to a different answer.”
Timmons, who spoke to The Daily Caller, argued that day in favor of free speech.
“It’s an insult to women and to other minorities to think they need special codes or regulations so that they won’t feel intimidated,” the law school yearbook recorded him saying at the time. He was, he later recalled, the “lone dissenter.”
“Nobody seriously questioned the goal of increasing the number of racial and ethnic minorities at HLS,” Timmons told TheDC. “But it seemed as those these diversity proponents didn’t exactly want more viewpoints on campus, nor did they want to just increase the numbers of racial and ethnic minorities. They wanted more minorities who embraced the same basic left-leaning political ideology of the HLS establishment.”
“In other words,” Timmons explained, “they wanted more people who looked different but thought the same.”
Timmons saw the panel itself as an ironic and “amusing illustration of the times.”
“On a panel purporting to explore whether the law school was in fact promoting a singular point of view, five of the six panelists promoted the same view,” he recalled.
Timmons’ encounters with Obama were “limited,” he said, but still a picture of the future president emerged.
“I remember [Obama] as a dynamic speaker, much the same way he is today. I had trouble discerning who he really was as a person, instead of seeing the projection of himself he wanted others to see.”
Timmons told TheDC that Obama was not, as some have suggested, a true political bridge builder on the Harvard campus. “To the extent that he was,” he said, “it would have been the left and the extreme left, but together they comprised the vast majority of the students.”
“Even though Obama was clearly bright,” Timmons continued, “I saw him as more of an ideologue, than a seeker of intellectual truth, and someone quick to pander to his audience for political gain. Even then, he was ever the politician, always running, it seemed, for office.”
Charlie Oellermann, another Harvard Law School classmate, did not share Obama’s politics at the time. But the two took the same first-year criminal law class.
“My broader impression of the HLS environment in the fall of ’88 was that I didn’t know whether or not these people had ever heard of Reagan,” Oellerman told TheDC. “I thought the world had moved past the Socialist world view, but I guess that was a pipe dream on my part.”
Harvard law students on the far left at the time, he said, had “totally unpracticable ideas for society.”
Obama, Oellerman added, was “careful not to associate himself 100 percent with some of the wacky ideas on campus, but it was clear that was where his sympathies would lie.”
The White House did not respond to TheDC’s request for comment.