Black Mass Event Challenges Freedom of Speech and Religion at Harvard

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The Harvard Extension University Cultural Studies Club created quite a stir in Boston this past week when it announced the sponsorship of a Black Mass re-enactment to be staged by the New York-based  Satanic Temple. The event was originally slated to be held on campus Monday evening at Cambridge Queen’s Head Pub in Memorial Hall. By 7 p.m. the Club had cancelled its official involvement leaving The Satanic Temple to stage the ritual on its own.

Harvard [Photo Credit: Joseph Williams/WikiMedia]

Harvard [Photo Credit: Joseph Williams/WikiMedia]

The Cultural Studies Club began advertising the Black Mass on May 5 with campus posters and a registration website. In accordance with their mission, the Club’s goal was purely educational. As explained by the Club President*:

In a pluralistic democracy it is essential that everyone have equal rights to display their faith. We feel this has not been the case and want to allow other legitimate groups this opportunity especially when those groups have been unfairly maligned with disturbing repercussions.

The outcry and backlash were almost immediate. On May 7 a Catholic student named Jonathan wrote, “My hope and prayer is that all Catholics on campus of sound mind and faith will oppose this injustice and picket the event.” The Harvard Catholic Student Association published an online petition that reads:

While the Cultural Studies Club dubiously claims that the purpose of re-enactment is purely “educational,” this does not change the fact that the Black Mass in fact mocks religious beliefs, desecrates sacred items and symbols, and insults the spiritual sensitivities of Harvard’s Catholics, Christians and other people of faith. … Moreover, we who are members of the Harvard community fear for the University’s reputation and for what Harvard’s stamp of approval will do to the University’s relationship with its alumni, students, faculty, and the global community it aims to serve. We demand that President Faust and the Harvard administration speak out against this event, and do all in their power to disband it.

Despite mounting student protests, the University administration would not cancel the event. On May 9 the Dean of Students and Alumni Affairs Robert Neugeboren, stated:

Students at the Harvard Extension School, like students at colleges across the nation, organize and operate a number of independent student organizations, representing a wide range of student interests. The Harvard Extension School does not endorse the views or activities of any independent student organization. But we do support the rights of our students and faculty to speak and assemble freely.

Neugeboren goes on to express his awareness that the event is “deeply disturbing and offensive to many” and hopes that Club organizers will open a dialog with Harvard’s Christian community.

Boston’s Catholic leaders joined the protest asking Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust to cancel the Club’s Black Mass. Fr. Roger Landry called the event “terribly ill-advised and totally insensitive.” The Archdiocese of Boston publicly “expressed sadness and strong opposition” referencing recent speeches from the Vatican.  He said:

… Pope Francis warned of the danger of being naïve about or underestimating the power of Satan, whose evil is too often tragically present in our midst.  We call upon all believers and people of good will to join us in prayer for those who are involved in this event, that they may come to appreciate the gravity of their actions. 

The Archdiocese also announced a vigil walk from the M.I.T. Chapel to St. Paul’s Church to be held at the same time as the Black Mass. The walk would be followed by a Holy Hour of prayer at St. Paul’s.

President Drew Gilpin Faust [Photo Credit: Harvard]

President Drew Gilpin Faust [Photo Credit: Harvard]

Despite pressure President Faust would not stop the Black Mass. She said:

The reenactment of a ‘black mass’ planned by a student group affiliated with the Harvard Extension School challenges us to reconcile the dedication to free expression at the heart of a university with our commitment to foster a community based on civility and mutual understanding … It is deeply regrettable that the organizers of this event, well aware of the offense they are causing so many others, have chosen to proceed with a form of expression that is so flagrantly disrespectful and inflammatory … Nevertheless, consistent with the University’s commitment to free expression, including expression that may deeply offend us, the decision to proceed is and will remain theirs. 

In the statement Faust also emphasized that she would be attending the Eucharistic Holy Hour and Benediction at St. Paul’s Church in order to “reaffirm our respect for the Catholic faith at Harvard and to demonstrate that the most powerful response to offensive speech is not censorship, but reasoned discourse and robust dissent.”

By Monday afternoon the Club had over 700 people registered to attend the Black Mass; far more than expected. The Club President says, “Due to this level of interest and the conflicts this was creating on campus with concerns over upcoming finals, we decided to move the event.”  At 5:45pm the Club announced that the new location would be the Middle East Restaurant and Bar.

However The Middle East quickly responded via tweet that they were “not hosting the event.” According to one of the owners, “The booking had never been confirmed.”  The Cultural Studies Club believes that the restaurant may have experienced external pressure causing negotiations to fall through. At that point the Club had no other viable location and therefore decided to publicly cancel the Black Mass. The Club President says:

Some people seem to think the public cancellation is a victory, but it is most certainly a Pyrrhic one. The dissenters did not shut down hate speech as they like to pretend they did. Many people are keenly aware of that and are disgusted by the self-righteous behavior of those who tried to stop this event. Instead they come across as being frighteningly oppressive …The celebrations of the people protesting the Black Mass, we observed, took on a fascist tone because they were rejoicing in the suppression of those they disagree with.

Throughout the evening Christian Organizations held protests all over Harvard Square while the Archdiocese lead the vigial walk and prayer hour. At the same time there were counter-protests by supporters of the Club and Black Mass event. The Club President says, “Neither the club nor [The Satanic Temple] were actively involved, although The Satanic Temple spokesman Lucien Greaves did deliver an impromptu speech.”

Counter Protestors [Photo Credit: The Satanic Temple]

Counter Protestors [Photo Credit: The Satanic Temple]

Despite Monday’s turn-of-events, The Satanic Temple did manage to stage a Black Mass ritual that night at the Hong Kong Restaurant and Lounge across from Harvard Yard. According to The Harvard Crimson, there were 50 attendees, most of whom were Temple members and core supporters.

Looking back at the events the Cultural Studies Club President firmly believes that there were as many people or more who supported the Club’s work or wanted to experience the Black Mass as those who didn’t. The President notes that the University itself “was honorable though out and always planned to allow the event to proceed.” Despite significant pressure Harvard’s administration consistently upheld its support of “student free speech and made sure the necessary logistical support was provided.”

When asked if they would reschedule, the President said, “We certainly have the right to reschedule, but we’ll have to wait until the fall to decide. We already have a number of events planned.” Some of those events are a Shinto Tea ceremony, Buddhist mediation presentation and a Shaker performance. In addition a Southern Baptist preacher has volunteered to journey to Cambridge in order to host a ritual. The Club President adds that “All club members are open-minded and would enthusiastically accept invitations to events hosted by” Pagans and Heathens of all and any practice.


* Due to the amount of hate mail and personal threats received by the Club President and members, they wish to remain anonymous.