I don’t know what they’re teaching at Harvard, but whatever it is, they need more Orwell.

George Orwell couldn’t have dreamed up a more absurd situation than students at one of the world’s most prestigious universities opposing campus journalists seeking comment from a government agency.

Borrowing a page from Orwell’s anti-authoritarian fable “Animal Farm,” in which innocuous barnyard animals turn into sneering, vindictive fascists drunk on power and self-importance, a group of students took it upon themselves to instruct reporters at the student newspaper, The Crimson, how to do journalism.

In short, the students at Act on a Dream, an immigrant advocacy group, told The Crimson to abandon a basic journalistic tenet or be branded fascist collaborators.


Worse, they created an online petition, encouraging others to embrace the idea of silencing anyone who disagrees with them.

“We are extremely disappointed in the cultural insensitivity displayed by The Crimson’s policy to reach out to ICE,” the petition reads. “In this political climate, a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping them off.”


The petition, which has more than 600 signatures and was endorsed by 13 student organizations, including Harvard College Democrats and Harvard College Democrats for Warren, demands that The Crimson apologize and change its ways. Crimson editors stood their ground, and good for them.

The kerfuffle started when Crimson reporters covered a campus protest where demonstrators called for the abolition of ICE because of its treatment of immigrants.

After the protest, The Crimson called ICE for comment. ICE didn’t respond.

But Act on a Dream accused the newspaper of being in bed with ICE because it — gulp — asked for comment.

I’ve never shied from criticizing ICE, especially when instead of going after criminals it picks on decent, tax-paying immigrants who take care of their families and keep their noses clean. But it’s a bit extreme to abolish an established agency before trying to reform it, and, like the archaic, chaotic immigration system that ICE enforces, there has been no serious attempt at reform.


Like some in Congress, Act on a Dream wants to destroy ICE. Good luck to them. It’s a free country.

But when they engage in “you’re either with us or you’re the enemy” thinking to determine what they consider good journalism, they’re in league with that nutty guy in the White House they all hate.

Orwell took a bullet fighting against fascists in Spain. He was a courageous critic of right-wing authoritarianism. But he cast an equally cold eye on intolerance from the left.

“So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot,” he wrote in 1941. He had little time for what he dismissed as “the shallow self-righteousness of the left-wing intelligentsia.”

After Orwell wrote “Animal Farm,” government censors warned him not to publish the book because it was clearly aimed at the Soviets, an indispensable ally in the fight against the Nazis. Censorship was rife. Four publishers rejected the manuscript.

In a proposed preface, called “The Freedom of the Press,” Orwell ruefully noted that during the war against fascism it was verboten to criticize Soviet totalitarianism.

“Hardly anyone will print an attack on Stalin,” he wrote, “but it is quite safe to attack Churchill.”


Act on a Dream does some admirable advocacy, but in attacking The Crimson and trying to get others to boycott it, the group employs an anti-democratic tactic favored by despots around the world.

Looking at the bios on Act on a Dream’s website, its members seem like great kids — accomplished, well-intentioned, and wanting to change the world for the better. Good for them.

I asked Act on a Dream for comment but didn’t hear back.

One last observation from Orwell: “If you encourage totalitarian methods, the time may come when they will be used against you instead of for you.”

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.