Tufts ‘Declaration on Freedom of Expression’ Misunderstands the Concept

By on December 1, 2009

Last month, the Tufts University Board of Trustees approved its "Declaration on Freedom of Expression at Tufts University." Unfortunately, what Tufts touts as an attempt to harmonize the values of free expression and respecting others’ feelings is a transparent rejection of controversial speech.  

Tufts’ declaration claims that it supports "freedom of expression and inquiry as fundamental to the academic enterprise" yet outlines "obligations" to exercise that freedom "in ways that respect the human dignity of others." This facile statement was recognized by several sources as an attempt to limit free speech on campus. Today’s article in Inside Higher Ed quotes the response of FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley:

It’s easy to proclaim vague support for free expression. It doesn’t seem Tufts has done the hard work of actually committing to free expression on campus in a substantive way. Rather it seems like lip service.

The Inside Higher Ed article, entitled "Tufts Defines Free Speech Limits," chronicles the debate over free speech at Tufts following a conservative student newspaper’s parodies criticizing affirmative action and fundamentalist Islam. Tufts originally sought to punish the authors of these parodies and ban anonymous articles in any campus publication, but rescinded these punishments (if not the findings of guilt themselves) after outcry from free speech advocates. Tufts is therefore on FIRE’s Red Alert List as one of the worst offenders of the principles of liberty on campus, and FIRE has detailed its various transgressions, including its treatment of the parodies by conservative journal The Primary Source.  

Now, as Inside Higher Ed reports, the declaration "does not define any sanctions, however, other than to say the university ‘must hold accountable’" those who do not respect community values. This vague threat will certainly chill free speech. As Jeswald Salacuse, chair of the task force that produced the declaration and a law professor, remarked ominously, "I think that we took the position that if we state these values, that in of itself has a lot of effect."

Minding the Campus delivered an astute critique of Tufts’ declaration, noting that to "demand respect for ‘the human dignity of others’ sounds positive and harmless, but almost any passionate argument or satirical comment on campus can easily be construed as harmful to someone’s dignity." FIRE also has lengthy commentary on a previous, and similarly misguided, draft of this declaration here. This commentary was sent to Tufts last year after the university invited comment on its draft. The Tufts Daily, which received a copy of the declaration before it was published, describes the statement here.

Although Tufts’ declaration and its reaction to The Primary Source’s parodies caused students to discuss the ideals of free speech on campus, we fear those debating the issue may be unduly constrained by the vague command to "respect the human dignity of others."

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