How Can Tufts University Get Off FIRE’s Red Alert List?
August 25, 2009
by Adam Kissel
FIRE's full-page ad in U.S. News & World Report, right next to the annual college rankings, exposes the colleges and universities that have acted so poorly regarding individual rights on campus that FIRE is warning students to think twice before they apply and put their rights at risk. (Here is last year's ad.) Brandeis University, Bucknell University, Colorado College, Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and Tufts University are very unsafe when it comes to student and faculty rights. Please follow the links above for more information—if you have not encountered college censorship before, you'll be amazed by what you read.
What can these schools do to get off the list? How can they demonstrate that they are no longer the "worst of the worst" when it comes to individual rights? Let us start with Tufts University.
As you can see, Tufts University is a repeat offender against the principles of liberty on campus, the cause of four separate FIRE cases, including three between 2000 and 2001, when FIRE was still new. Since then, Tufts apparently has learned little about the actual value of freedom of expression that it repeatedly claims to value.
Tufts' most recent descent into censorship began in December 2006, when a conservative campus newspaper called The Primary Source (TPS) published a satirical Christmas carol entitled "Oh Come All Ye Black Folk," a biting satire of race-based admissions. The piece sparked campus controversy, so TPS published an apology shortly afterward. Four months later, in April 2007, TPS ran another piece entitled "Islam—Arabic Translation: Submission," a satire that ridiculed Tufts' "Islamic Awareness Week" by highlighting militant Islamic terrorism and other verifiable facts about Islam.
That month, students filed charges alleging that the December article constituted "harassment" and created a "hostile environment" as well as similar charges about the piece on Islam. On April 20, 2007, Tufts' Committee on Student Life issued a decision holding that TPS had violated the university's harassment policy by publishing the two pieces. The Committee strangely found that the carol "targeted [black students] on the basis of their race, subjected them to ridicule and embarrassment, intimidated them, and had a deleterious impact on their growth and well-being on campus." The Committee also held that the parody of Islamic Awareness Week "targeted members of the Tufts Muslim community for harassment and embarrassment, and that Muslim students felt psychologically intimidated by the piece."
As punishment, the committee banned TPS from running unsigned or anonymous works and also recommended that the student government "consider the behavior of student groups" in future decisions regarding recognition and funding. TPS contacted FIRE for help, and FIRE soon wrote Tufts President Lawrence Bacow to protest the committee's decision. Bacow never bothered to respond to FIRE. In May 2007, the ACLU of Massachusetts also protested Tufts' treatment of TPS.
The decision was ludicrous: publishing true statements counted as harassment because the statements made others feel bad. As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff wrote at the time:
So does this paint Islam in a nice light? No. Is it one-sided? Yes, but that was kind of the point. The students were responding to what they thought was a one-sided and overly rosy depiction of Islam during Islamic Awareness week. But is it unprotected harassment!? One certainly hopes not, or else "harassment" just became a truly lethal threat to free speech—an "exception" that completely swallows the rule.
This is perhaps the most troubling and far-reaching aspect of this case. The Primary Source published a satirical ad filled with factual assertions and because this angered people it was ruled to be unprotected harassment. ... [I]n sadly predictable fashion, the students plowed ahead with a harassment claim that, based on the hearing panel's decision, appeared not even to raise the issue of whether or not the statements in the ad were true, but turned only on how they made people feel.
Over the summer, TPS appealed. Tufts Dean of Undergraduate Education James Glaser reversed the ban on publishing anonymous speech but left the "harassment" part of the decision standing. President Bacow released a statement saying that Tufts "must be vigilant in defending individual liberties even if it means that from time to time we must tolerate speech that violates our standards of civility and respect," but Tufts' official line in the specific case of TPS remains: TPS racially harassed and intimidated African-American and Muslim students.
Last fall, as the controversy remained raw, Tufts released a Draft Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Inquiry. The draft posed a serious new threat to free expression at Tufts, so in October FIRE issued a detailed statement listing our concerns. For one thing, it read like a declaration of the exceptions to free speech more than a declaration of the value of free speech at a free university. (Here is a key excerpt of FIRE's statement.) In April 2009, a new draft was released. It was somewhat less objectionable in that the exceptions to free speech were slightly downplayed. But the statement overall remains more like a statement of prohibitions, declaring that any nice person at Tufts "owes" everyone else things like "civil dialogue," despite the fact that the rough-and-tumble academic world is full of hard-hitting dialogue that might well feel uncivil much of the time.
The one piece of good news in the new, April 2009 draft declaration is the emphasis on efforts to educate rather than to punish when campus speech seems "offensive," so long as the offensiveness falls short of actual harassment or a similar legitimate exception to freedom of expression:
[T]hroughout the entire University, three basic tenets should guide implementation: First, the university leadership, including the faculty, should rely to the maximum extent possible on the processes of education to secure these principles. ... Third, administrative or disciplinary measures to deal with perceived offensive speech should be limited to those instances in which such speech manifestly obstructs the rights of community members to pursue education or to seek knowledge.
If this is really how Tufts feels about its values, it should be quite easy for Tufts to get off FIRE's Red Alert list. What TPS did was not even close to harassment. It is almost impossible for someone to truly be "harassed" by a satirical article in a newspaper, or to be "manifestly obstruct[ed]" by such an article. If Tufts has the courage to admit its error, like any good scholar would, Tufts will formally reverse or expunge the finding that what TPS did was harassment.
This response will let the Tufts community understand that Tufts really means what it says when it values free speech and will never punish merely "offensive" speech. It is easy, costs nothing, and will keep Tufts out of U.S. News & World Report next year. But so long as Tufts fails to do so, FIRE will keep warning prospective students that Tufts is not yet safe for individual rights. So long as what happened to TPS is let stand, it could happen again, and FIRE will keep publicizing Tufts' betrayal of the fundamental principles of a free society.