On a campus already bitterly divided, the statement poured acid all over Harvard Yard.
A coalition of more than 30 student groups posted an open letter on the night of the Hamas attack, saying that Israel was “entirely responsible” for the violence that ended up killing more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians.
The letter, posted on social media before the extent of the killings was known, did not include the names of individual students.
But within days, students affiliated with those groups were being doxxed, their personal information posted online. Siblings back home were threatened. Wall Street executives demanded a list of student names to ban their hiring. And a truck with a digital billboard — paid for by a conservative group — circled Harvard Square, flashing student photos and names, under the headline, “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.”
Campuses have long wrestled with free speech. What is acceptable to say and what crosses into hate speech? But the war between Israel and Hamas has heightened emotions, threatening to tear apart already fragile campus cultures.
Complicating it all: outside groups, influential alumni and big-money donors, who are putting maximum pressure on students and administrators.
At the University of Pennsylvania, donors are pushing for the resignation of the president and the board chairman, after a Palestinian writers’ conference on campus invited speakers accused of antisemitism.
At Harvard, a billionaire couple quit an executive board. Another donor pulled money for fellowships. And Lawrence Summers, a former Harvard president and Treasury secretary, criticized the leadership for a “delayed” response to the Hamas attack and the student letter.
This is not the first time that Harvard students have taken up an unpopular view. But those involved with the letter had not anticipated that their statement would go viral and unleash such repercussions.
The students had to contend with “people’s lives being ruined, people’s careers being ruined, people’s fellowships being ruined,” said one student whose organization signed the letter, in an interview.
Many critics have little forbearance for these complaints, saying that the letter itself showed a lack of empathy. But other students and free-speech activists say that the outside pressure has created its own kind of heckler’s veto, dictating what can be said on campus and how institutions must respond.
“You kind of feel like you’re responsible” for the harassment, said one of the Harvard students, whose family’s personal information was released. “That’s how silencing works, right?”
The Letter and Its Aftermath
Last week, in a bland conference room on the campus, four student leaders in the pro-Palestinian movement — three women and a man, all undergraduates — sat nervously around a table. A kaffiyeh, a checkered scarf that has become a symbol of Palestinian solidarity, was tossed on a chair.
They were not Palestinian, they said, but activists for marginalized people.
The groups that signed the letter often worked together in a kind of informal support network, the students said. When one championed an issue, the others might sign on in a show of collegiality.
They had agreed to be interviewed but insisted on anonymity, saying that they feared for their safety. They asked that even the smallest details of their personal lives — freshman? senior? — not be published.
They have been avoiding publicity since posting their letter on Facebook and Instagram on the night of Oct. 7, hours after the attack.
As the world increasingly focused on Hamas’s trail of terror in Israel, their letter opened with the line: “We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”
After the letter went viral, and anger against it erupted, some of the groups distanced themselves from the message.
Attention has now shifted to Israel’s ongoing retaliation and the toll on civilians in Gaza, and these students are sticking with their stance, though they said it has been wearing.
One of the women found out from a friend about the billboard truck. It was parked just outside the university gates, plastered with a giant image of her smiling face. Customers sitting at a pastry shop, students looking out of their dormitory windows and commuters rushing to and from the train station could see her, along with a carousel of other students, being branded as antisemitic.
“I threw up in Harvard Yard,” she said.
The truck is operated by Accuracy in Media, a conservative group that has also deployed such trucks at other campuses, like Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley.
“It’s ironic that students on the campus where Facebook was invented are shocked that their names are publicly available,” Adam Guillette, president of Accuracy in Media, said. “We’re merely amplifying their message.”
The group is not done. It has purchased domain names for Harvard students associated with the letter and is setting up individual websites for them. Each site will call for the university to punish the students.
Students’ names were also exposed last week through a website featuring a “College Terror List, a Helpful Guide for Employers” compiled by Maxwell Meyer, a 2022 Stanford graduate.
Mr. Meyer, 23, said in an interview that his information had come from public sources and tips sent to an email address. He said he had no affiliation with Accuracy in Media.
His website was removed by Google and Notion, the note-taking app where it was displayed, Mr. Meyer said. (The students said alumni had helped remove it.) But other sites have picked up the list and passed it around.
Mr. Meyer said that as a former editor of the conservative Stanford Review, he was a defender of free speech. “At one point, I defended critics of Israel against what I called right-wing cancel culture,” he said.
But “if you’re a member of an organization that advocates terrorism in your name, you aren’t just a sitting duck, you’re a person with agency,” he said. “You can say, ‘I disavow this.’ These are Harvard students we’re talking about. They need to be held to a higher standard.”
Bill Ackman, the hedge fund billionaire and Harvard alumnus, wrote on social media that the names of students should be circulated, to avoid “inadvertently” hiring them. His more than 800,000 followers boosted Mr. Meyer’s website, and led dozens of chief executives to ask for the list, Mr. Meyer said.
In another social media post, Mr. Ackman said he was “100% in support of free speech.” But, he added, “one should be prepared to stand up and be personally accountable for his or her views.”
The doxxing, however, has extended to family members.
“Every single member of my family has been contacted, including my younger siblings,” said the student whose smiling face was on the truck.
With Free Speech, What’s the Line?
Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional scholar and the dean of U.C. Berkeley’s law school, said he objected to the doxxing and believed that displaying a truck billboard of student photos was “despicable.”
But he did not believe the actions had prevented either side from expressing their views. Mr. Ackman and Mr. Meyer may have heightened the tension, he said, but “you can’t express your views and then say, ‘Those who criticize me are chilling my speech.’”
Universities have to strike a balance, he said. “The institution — the law school or university — has to help all students get jobs regardless of their views.” Employers have a right not to hire people whose views they disagree with.
To other free-speech advocates, however, doxxing and shaming have become a standard part of the cancel culture arsenal, and run the risk of suppressing opinion.
Nadine Strossen, a former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the students’ statement “deplorable” but said that was beside the point.
Collecting names sounded like a throwback to McCarthy-era blacklists, she said. The latest lists could muzzle not only these students, but also those who might share “more thoughtful and less categorical pronouncements.”
And threatening people’s career prospects seemed like an overreaction, she said, especially when they were young and just starting out.
“The concept of proportionality, elusive as it is, is very woven into the fabric of not only American law, but international human rights law,” said Ms. Strossen, now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
Students behind the letter said that Harvard had not done enough to push back against their adversaries.
University officials have sent out general messages saying Harvard does not “condone or ignore” threats and intimidation. And officials said they have taken steps to ensure safety and calm anxieties over the last 10 days or so.
The university has urged students to report threats to the Harvard police. It has expanded shuttle service and closed the gates of Harvard Yard at night to people without university identification.
There is little the university can do, however, about the truck, which has been careful to stay on public streets. And the lists of names were compiled from publicly available sources.
Harvard has also begun dealing with the fractured mood on campus. On Tuesday, the Dean of Students Office announced open office hours for students who wanted to talk about “recent events.” Another office announced a session on “Navigating Interpersonal Conflict and Leadership.”
Students associated with the Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee have distributed a guide for doxxed students, which they compiled after a meeting with “upper-level administrators,” according to student emails.
The guide said that Harvard’s career center would reach out to employers to vouch for students. And it provided contact information for a lawyer willing to help undocumented students. It also recommended avoiding the news media: “Demand anonymity — use language about ‘extreme threat to security.’”
At Hillel House, a Different Threat
At the Harvard Hillel building, Jewish students passed through locked doors guarded by a patrol car. Over the past week, they had spent more time than usual there, looking for solace and understanding. Some students knew people who had been killed in the attack.
To them, the anti-Israel statement sounded divorced from reality.
“I feel insane walking around this campus,” said Elianne Sacher, a student from Israel. Since when, she asked, are murder and kidnapping excused?
After the Hamas attack, more pro-Palestinian students have attended class wearing the kaffiyeh, said Spencer Glassman, another student taking refuge in Hillel.
He felt uncomfortable with the display. “When terrorists wear the symbol, they appropriate the meaning,” he said. “It’s not this neutral liberation symbol to me.”
The students said that in the past week, antisemitic comments had been uttered in dining halls and posted on social media. The app Sidechat allows students to post anonymous messages, after logging in with their Harvard email addresses.
Harvard Hillel’s president, Jacob Miller, pushed a sheaf of examples across a table during an interview.
“LET EM COOK,” next to a Palestinian flag emoji, read one.
“I proudly accept the label of terrorist,” read another.
A third replied to emojis of the Israeli flag with an emoji of a baby’s head separated from its torso.
Screenshots of the posts have been shared with Harvard officials, the students at Hillel said.
Much as he condemned the truck and the doxxing, Mr. Miller said, the screeds on social media directed at Jewish students also had a chilling effect on speech.
“I do think it cuts both ways,” he said. “A number of my friends tell me they feel intimidated and uncomfortable speaking on campus due to the hostile environment.”
“It’s tragic that students on both sides feel afraid to voice their opinions,” Mr. Miller said. “Especially at a college that prides itself on the pursuit of truth.”
Stephanie Saul and Vimal Patel contributed reporting. Susan Beachy contributed research.