Northeastern, Tufts fail free speech exam

December 30, 2007

Tufts and Northeastern are among a group of Boston-area colleges whose policies on free speech earned them a tongue-lashing from a national campus watchdog group over the past year.

The co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Cambridge attorney Harvey Silverglate, said “speech codes erode a university’s devotion to the core principle of higher education: the free and unfettered search for truth no matter where it leads.”

Although many universities pride themselves on promoting free speech and fostering unfettered debate, many also have instituted policies that limit the ability of students to express controversial opinions, whatever they may be.

In most cases, the speech codes have been implemented to prohibit “offensive speech,” and many question whether limiting this sort of speech at universities is really such a bad thing. For Silverglate, the answer is a definite yes.

Silverglate spoke of a recent incident at Tufts University when a student publication, The Primary Source, was targeted for publishing two satirical articles offending both the Islamic and African-American populations on campus.

The Source was found guilty of harassment by the campus Committee on Student Life, a university judicial panel composed of students and faculty members. It was told it would have to identify its authors in subsequent issues. The stipulation was later overturned by a university dean, allowing the Source to publish articles anonymously, but the ruling that found the group guilty of harassment was upheld.

Tufts spokeswoman Kim Thurler said the university is committed to freedom of expression but that “currently we are reviewing our internal policy language to ensure that we properly balance the opportunity to speak freely on campus with the need to ensure that individuals on campus are protected from illegal behaviors such as stalking and harassment.”

Northeastern University garnered unwanted recognition from FIRE when it was named as having the “Speech Code of the Month” in February for prohibiting any electronic communication that “in the sole judgment of the university is offensive.”

Defending the policy, Northeastern spokesman Brian C. Kenny said the goal is to “protect the rights of all individuals while providing a safe, open electronic environment.”

Massachusetts schools were not the only ones FIRE profiled. The organization reviewed policies at 346 American colleges and universities. It found that 75 percent of them maintain policies that clearly restrict speech that outside the borders of campus is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

FIRE has coordinated legal challenges to speech codes at public colleges and universities across the country with success. But private schools, which are legally allowed to restrict speech, must be approached differently.

According to Samantha Harris, director of legal and public advocacy at FIRE, “the key is both encouraging universities to do the right thing morally and guarantee their students’ right to free speech, and following up with public pressure on universities that continue to censor their students.”

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Schools: Tufts University Cases: Tufts University: Speech Code Controversy