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Speech Code of the Month: Tufts University

By on June 2, 2008

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for June 2008: Tufts University. Tufts already has the dubious distinction of a spot on FIRE’s Red Alert List, which is reserved for colleges and universities that display the utmost disregard for their students’ individual rights. Tufts earned its Red Alert status after finding last spring that The Primary Source (TPS), a conservative student newspaper, violated the school’s harassment policy by publishing two satirical articles mocking affirmative action and Islamic fundamentalism. It is that harassment policy that has now earned Tufts the ignominy of being named Speech Code of the Month for June 2008.

Tufts defines harassment as follows:

Harassment involves attitudes or opinions that are expressed verbally or in writing, or through behavior that constitutes a threat, intimidation, psychological attack, or physical assault. (Emphasis added.)

The policy further provides that “unwelcomed communications such as phone calls, misuse of message boards, e-mail messages, and other behaviors calculated to annoy, embarrass, or distress are harassing behavior and are prohibited.” (Emphasis added.)

This policy is vague (what, exactly, is a psychological attack?) and overbroad (no annoying or embarrassing speech?), and insofar as it purports to prohibit attitudes and opinions, it is a gross violation of students’ right to freedom of conscience. The overbreadth of the policy is particularly stunningafter all, is there any strong opinion that some person, somewhere, isn’t likely to find annoying?

Although it is a private university, and thus not legally bound by the First Amendment, Tufts is bound by the promises it makes to its students. And Tufts’ student handbook includes numerous specific guarantees of free speech. The student handbook promises that “Tufts is an open campus committed to the free exchange of ideas,” even going so far as to explicitly state that “it is inevitable that some programs and speakers will be offensive to some members of the community” and that “civility can’t be required-it can only be encouraged.” Needless to say, Tufts’ harassment policy blatantly violates both of these guarantees.

In policy and in practice, Tufts is denying its students the rights it promises them and to which they would be legally entitled at any public university. For this reason, it is our June 2008 Speech Code of the Month. If you believe that your college or university should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email speechcodes@thefire.org with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code.

Schools: Tufts University