FIRE’s Erica Goldberg in ‘The Tufts Daily’ on Censorship at Tufts

By February 17, 2011

FIRE’s Justice Robert H. Jackson Legal Fellow and Tufts alumna Erica Goldberg has an op-ed column in today’s Tufts Daily. Erica’s op-ed responds to two articles published earlier this week in the Daily that take FIRE to task for placing Tufts on our Huffington Post list of the 12 worst colleges for freedom of speech. Erica’s column cuts right to the heart of why the impulse of so many at Tufts to allow "free speech" as long as it is not "hate speech" is both unworkable and a bad idea.

Erica’s column, reprinted from the Tufts Daily in full below, exposes how, at Tufts, too many students seem willing to give up the essential liberty of freedom of speech to purchase the appearance of a harmonious campus that comes with silencing unpopular viewpoints.

In Tuesday’s edition of the Daily, the editorial "FIRE is wrong in naming Tufts in its ‘12 worst’" and the op-ed "More speech, not less, and certainly not hate speech" respond to Tufts being placed on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE) "12 Worst Schools for Free Speech" list in The Huffington Post. These two opinion pieces level fairly common criticisms of FIRE and our methods. I write today, as the Justice Robert H. Jackson Legal Fellow at FIRE and a proud alum of Tufts, to address these criticisms and explain further why Tufts deserves its place.

Tufts is one of those schools on FIRE’s Huffington Post list that promises students free speech yet suppresses it. This is not just because The Primary Source was found responsible for "harassment" and punished for running two controversial pieces – one on affirmative action and the other on Islamic extremism – but also because Tufts has continued to defend its actions. The piece on affirmative action was a Christmas carol parody entitled "O’ Come All Ye Black Folk," and the satirical advertisement for Islamic Awareness Week printed true but unflattering facts about Muslim dictatorships and extreme forms of the religion. Although it has been close to four years since The Primary Source ran these pieces, Tufts’ finding The Primary Source guilty of harassment for printing entirely protected political speech remains one of the worst cases FIRE has seen.

Tufts refuses to overturn this finding, which threatens The Primary Source’s budget should another harassment investigation occur. Just last week, the administration in the Feb. 11 article "Advocacy group: Tufts one of worst colleges for free speech" defended its decision to punish students for speech that, while offensive to many (including me when I was a Tufts student), expressed pure opinions in a non-threatening way. Furthermore, Tufts’ "Declaration on Freedom of Expression" ended up actually being a rejection of controversial speech.

The Daily’s editorial, which opposes FIRE’s categorization of Tufts as a free speech offender, levels significant charges against us that are worthy of response. The first is that our understanding of free speech is flawed. According to the editorial: "FIRE is only interested in absolutes. The group needs to have a more holistic, nuanced perspective – one that doesn’t cherry pick four-year old events – before making false claims about Tufts or any university."

We at FIRE are not arguing from absolutes. A brief perusal of our website illustrates that we recognize that many valid exceptions to First Amendment protections exist that do not chill robust debate. As long recognized in First Amendment jurisprudence, speech that rises to the level of true harassment, threats or intimidation is unprotected. We work with universities to reform their speech policies to balance the need to provide a truly safe educational environment for their student body while fostering an atmosphere in which students can explore dissenting and controversial topics in a variety of ways without being penalized for their viewpoints.

The type of "holistic, nuanced perspective" that the Daily appears to seek is asking for an exception that would swallow the rule. The editorial states that "[t]he ‘free speech’ that FIRE aims to promote can too easily pave the way for discrimination on college campuses," arguing that such speech should not be permitted. While I assume the Daily understands that there is no category of speech called "hate speech" that loses its First Amendment protection, it is worth addressing why even speech that some might call bigoted should be part of everyone’s conception of free speech.

Students and administrators have the absolute right to express displeasure with speech that is bigoted against certain groups based on immutable characteristics; bigots rightfully are quite unpopular on college campuses, and people should speak out against opinions they strongly dislike. However, when dealing with restrictions and regulations, any definition of "hate speech" would necessarily be so vague as to allow administrators to selectively enforce the restrictions in order to officially prohibit certain opinions. Students (including those who worked on the editorial) and administrators would be, and are, tempted to apply this concept of "hate speech" so broadly that anything that might generate animosity would be stifled.

For example, the op-ed claims that "[t]he Islamo-Fascism article singled out Muslim students on campus, and the Christmas carol parody specifically targeted 52 black freshmen in its verse, implying that each of the black students in the class of 2010 had been admitted under affirmative action policies and [were] thus undeserving of a Tufts education." No one was actually singled out. In fact, The Primary Source’s pieces, which expressed political views about affirmative action and Islamic extremism shared by many people, cannot be labeled "hate" if we are to permit pluralism and a multitude of views to thrive. How would the author of the op-ed expect someone to express the view that affirmative action alters the notion of who deserves admission to a selective university without risking offending someone? Additionally, provocative satire is an effective style for communicating one’s views, and the ability to use incendiary, rousing speech and parody has also been used to champion civil rights.

Finally, the author of the op-ed states: "The idea that more speech can be used to combat hate speech operates on the assumption that all speech is equal. That is unrealistic. The truth is that the system in place in this country and at Tufts systematically disenfranchises individuals on a number of bases, including their race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc."

This passage is a revealing insight into what happens when certain views are labeled taboo. The author of the op-ed expresses the political opinion that systemic discrimination exists in this country. However, because the author has dismissed those who disagree with this premise as perpetrators of hate speech, he doesn’t even realize that he is expressing an opinion about the experience of minorities and women in this country. His expectation that he does not need to defend this opinion (including the "etc."), which forms the basis of his fairly repressive view of free speech, is exactly what happens in an atmosphere where speech is stifled for political reasons.

Erica Goldberg graduated from Tufts in 2002 with degrees in biology and English and from Stanford Law School in 2005. She is currently the Robert H. Jackson legal fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Schools: Tufts University