This Month in FIRE History: Tyranny at Tufts

By May 19, 2009

This May marks the two-year anniversary of a case that is etched into our memories as one of the most outrageous we’ve ever had. Tufts University’s punishment of the conservative student newspaper The Primary Source for parody and satire was, and remains, indefensible.

The Primary Source hadn’t made any friends at Tufts by the time they released their article "Islam: Arabic Translation: Submission." A few months earlier, in December of 2006, the paper published their annual Christmas carol parody entitled "O Come All Ye Black Folk," which mocked the school’s affirmative action policy. Realizing that the carol had offended large portions of the Tufts community, TPS published an apology on December 6, 2006.

In April of 2007, in response to Islamic Awareness Week, the newspaper published "Islam: Arabic Translation: Submission." The article contained verifiable facts about "intolerant and inhuman" aspects of some elements of Islamic religion and society. In response, complaints were filed against the newspaper by fellow students. Unfortunately, Tufts wasn’t concerned with the veracity of the information; instead, the prosecution focused on the feelings that were hurt by the facts’ publication. As we often see here at FIRE, despite the fact that the expression at issue would be protected by the First Amendment and fails to meet the legal standard for harassment, those hurt feelings nevertheless resulted in a harassment finding against the newspaper. As Michael Hiestand, counsel for the Student Press Law Center, said at the time, "[W]e’re really talking about offending someone or hurting their feelings. And when you start punishing for that, it’s a real broad brush [with which] you’re painting."

As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said of the article:

So does this paint Islam in a nice light? No. Is it one-sided? Yes, but that was kind of the point. The students were responding to what they thought was a one-sided and overly rosy depiction of Islam during Islamic Awareness week. But is it unprotected harassment!? One certainly hopes not, or else "harassment" just became a truly lethal threat to free speech-an "exception" that completely swallows the rule. …

Here, the fact that TPS printed verifiable informationwith citationswas apparently no defense, nor was the fact that the ad concerned contentious issues of dire global importance. Such an anemic conception of free speech should chill anyone who cares about basic rights and democracy itself.

FIRE has fought quite a battle against Tufts in this case, including letters to the President, Board of Trustees, and even the misinformed Mayor Bloomberg in an attempt to get Tufts to rectify its mistakes.

All is not yet well at Tufts, and the finding still stands. This, of course, is why Tufts is on our Red Alert list. As we’ve reminded President Lawrence Bacow, all it would take for Tufts to get off our list (and put an end to our public shaming of the school) would be for Tufts to reverse the absurd finding against TPS. Though President Bacow has since made lofty proclamations of his commitment to free expression, actions still speak louder than words.

Schools: Tufts University