Tufts President Bacow Just Doesn’t Get It
May 22, 2007
A FIRE supporter wrote to Tufts President Larry Bacow to express his concerns about free speech and academic freedom at Tufts after FIRE exposed the university’s disgraceful decision to punish The Primary Source (TPS) student magazine for harassment for publishing two parodies that offended some people on campus. Below is President Bacow’s response in full:
Dear [FIRE Supporter],
I believe in freedom of speech and expressed my own views in the attached article that was published in the Tufts Daily. I have no problems with students expressing political opinions however unpopular.
That said, they should take responsibility for what they write. The Committee on Student Life did not limit the Primary Source’s capacity to publish. They only held that they must sign their articles. I don’t think this is unreasonable.
So, in Bacow’s opinion, the punishment of TPS is no big deal. Let’s take a look at this argument, shall we? Tufts’ punishment for TPS’s “harassment” was twofold: first, since the parodies were published without bylines, every article in TPS must now be attributed to “named author(s) or contributor(s).” Second, the hearing panel said, “[w]e ask that student governance consider the behavior of student groups in future decisions concerning recognition and funding,” which is ominous but which doesn’t take any direct action. Could be worse, right? Sure, but it’s bad enough—and I’ll get to that soon. But there’s something Bacow is overlooking here:
TPS IS NOT GUILTY OF HARASSMENT.
Bacow seems to think that the disciplinary process went fine because the punishment is forcing TPS to do something he thinks is good—take responsibility for what it has published (although I have yet to hear Bacow call for The New York Times, The Washington Post, or even the Tufts Daily to eliminate unsigned editorials and the like; people seem to understand that the editorial boards as a whole are responsible for them). But this is a morally bankrupt position, because what TPS did—printing some parodies—is not harassment under any meaningful definition of the term. TPS editors did not publish the parodies and then chase people around and force them to look at them. They did not call people in the middle of the night and read the parodies to them. Their only “offense” is that some people didn’t like them. But to Bacow, apparently, that doesn’t matter—the fact that he likes the punishment is enough to excuse the fact that it’s utterly unwarranted. This exemplifies the sort of bizarre “ends justify the means” thinking that passes for justice on America’s college and university campuses, and it must stop.
Now, a brief word about the wisdom, or lack thereof, of Tufts’ requirement to have named authors for all contributions in TPS. First, as I pointed out above, unsigned opinions in periodicals are generally understood to reflect the opinion of the editors of the publication, who are easily discernible by looking at the paper’s masthead. It is blindingly obvious that the reason Tufts wants to require all articles to be signed is that they want the mob of offended students to have an easier time finding those with unpopular opinions. It also has the salutary (in Tufts’ eyes) benefit that signed articles make it easier to come up with immoral, bogus harassment charges against individual students rather than publications. Why settle for inconveniencing a publication when you can throw a wrench into someone’s career? (You try getting a good job after having even a bogus “harassment” judgment on your academic record. Let me know how it goes.)
Bacow and the Tufts “Committee on Student Life” know that they are disgraceful hypocrites when it comes to non-attributed works, and they obviously don’t care. Has President Bacow banned Mark Twain’s books from the curriculum because Samuel Clemens saw fit to hide his identity? Have the seven members of the Committee on Student Life ignored Orwell’s writings because of Eric Blair’s deception? Are David Dennis and the members of the Muslim Student Alliance (TPS’s accusers) ready to excise George Eliot from the canon because Mary Ann Evans falsely pretended to be a man? Before they jettison a fundamental right in order to ensure that they have an easier time figuring out who to bully, maybe they should have a word with perhaps the most famous non-attributed author in American History: a “man” named Publius. The disgraces hiding behind this name? Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. It’s too bad that Tufts President Bacow will never have the opportunity to tell these deceivers that their irresponsibly anonymous rhetoric is not welcome at the glorious center of freedom that is today’s Tufts University.