Case Study

Students protest Betsy DeVos at the Harvard Kennedy School


In September 2017, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics about the value of offering parents a choice of schools for their children. In the weeks leading up to the event, a group of students came together to coordinate a protest against school choice in addition to a number of other policy issues, including Title IX and transgender rights. The students chose a strategy that they hoped would simulate a kind of dialogue between them and DeVos without disrupting her talk. The secretary was met by a mostly silent student protest that included the staggered unfurling of a series of large banners with messages like “White Supremacist,” “Protect Survivors,” and “Our Students Are Not 4 Sale.” Outside the building, more protesters chanted, “Education Is a Right, Not Just for the Rich and White.” As DeVos exited, some in the crowd broke into chants of “This Is What White Supremacy Looks Like.”

PEN America Analysis

The students went to thoughtful lengths to structure their counter-speech so that it would deliver a strong message alongside DeVos’s talk without interrupting her. Though some have criticized the protesters for a lack of decorum, others maintain that the protests did not substantively prevent her from speaking or her audience from listening. To suggest that these students engaged in anything equivalent to a censorious shout-down or shutdown of DeVos’s talk would be a mischaracterization of their aims and actions. It’s important to distinguish between a “heckler’s veto”—which actually silences speech—and more measured forms of protest, which should be permitted on campus.

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