Comment Period on Tufts Freedom of Expression Policy Comes to a Close

By on October 20, 2008

Last Friday, the public comment period for Tufts University’s Draft Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Inquiry ended. FIRE believes this draft is highly deficient and poses a serious threat to free expression at Tufts, and on October 7th, FIRE issued a detailed statement listing our concerns.

Tufts is, of course, a private university so it is not directly bound by the First Amendment. But as we ask in our statement, even though Tufts may choose to place certain values above free speech, should they? Our answer:

A private college or university may, if it chooses, adopt policies that reject the freedom of speech that students at public institutions enjoy. Private universities are free to make it known that students will not have the same speech rights as those they would enjoy at, for instance, a Massachusetts community college. Tufts would not be doing its students a service, however, by adopting the draft Declaration’s ambiguous language that makes it unclear whether expression at Tufts is truly as free as it is at a public college or university.

As a nonprofit institution of higher learning with a long history, Tufts has a trust to maintain with its alumni and donors, as well as its current faculty and students, all of whom came to Tufts expecting the university to continue its tradition of free expression. Indeed, Tufts has presented itself as a non-sectarian center for freedom of inquiry and expression since its founding. Enacting speech restrictions would reverse over 150 years of tradition if Tufts decides that it will no longer uphold its noble promises of academic freedom and free speech.

Tufts has a 1.5-billion-dollar endowment, 8,500 current students, and more than 80,000 alumni, as well as 19,200 donors in the last year alone. If Tufts is willing to consider promulgating a moral and ethical obligation among its students to prize civility, respect, and tolerance above freedom of expression, should not Tufts also consider its own moral obligation to those who gave so generously to Tufts for the last century and half? Making the significant change of course and values that is represented by the draft Declaration would seem to require specific notification of (if not also discussion among) Tufts’ thousands of alumni, donors, and students. Tufts may want to distinguish itself as a place (like many sectarian colleges) where certain values are more important than freedom of expression. If so, Tufts would then have a moral obligation to notify future students that this is the environment they are joining. Those future students, however, may not understand why a liberal arts college would so restrict discourse on campus in the name of specific values.

In addition, a significant policy change that restricts student expression would be a breach of trust with current students, who have joined the Tufts community under the promise of truly free expression. Likewise, faculty under contract who are subject to new restrictions may well decide that they no longer want to work under the new restrictions and the potential for arbitrary, viewpoint-based punishment. They might even find that their contracts do not bind them to such new limitations or that, as a matter of ethics, Tufts ought not to bind them to such new limitations.

We hope Tufts makes the necessary modifications in its Declaration, and we look forward to seeing the next version.

Schools: Tufts University Cases: Tufts University: Conservative Student Journal Found Guilty of Harassment