Tufts’ Reaction to Placement on ’12 Worst’ List Validates FIRE’s Choice

By on February 14, 2011

The administrative response to FIRE’s placement of Tufts University on our list of "The 12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech" in The Huffington Post further demonstrates why student expression is in jeopardy at Tufts.

An article published Friday in the Tufts student newspaper The Tufts Daily discusses the list and explores the university’s troubled record of interfering with free expression on campus. This history includes Tufts finding the conservative student newspaper The Primary Source responsible for "harassment" for its controversial pieces on affirmative action and Islamic extremism. The Tufts Daily article quotes Dean of Student Affairs Bruce Reitman, who vehemently disagreed with FIRE’s characterization of Tufts as stifling free speech. Reitman’s response displays both a misunderstanding of free speech protections and a startling lack of logic:

Reitman said that FIRE itself is guilty of not truly respecting the freedom of expression.

"If FIRE is saying we are at fault because we are restricting people from having an opinion that can be voiced, aren’t they doing exactly that by saying a group of people doesn’t have the right to call something harassing behavior?" he said. "I think they’re hypocritical even in making this argument. So they’re saying that people don’t have the right to call something what they think it is. So they’re the ones in my mind who are talking about censoring."

It is truly astounding that Dean Reitman is equating FIRE’s exposure of free speech intrusions with the Tufts administration’s punishment of a student publication for engaging in protected political writing that in no way constituted true harassment. The administration’s investigation of The Primary Source, its declaration that the publication was guilty of violating Tufts’ policy on harassment, and its threat to cut the publication’s budget in the future was not speech, or merely "call[ing] something harassing behavior."  That was administrative action, as well as the epitome of censorship. Somehow, according to Reitman’s thought process, labeling an act of censorship as such has become censorship itself.

If students wish to speak out against The Primary Source and decry it as offensive, or even just plain inaccurate, that is their right. FIRE would champion that right. But when the administration, with its suspension and expulsion power, not only expresses displeasure with The Primary Source, but embarks upon a disciplinary proceeding to find it guilty of harassment, that is forceful action that has a chilling effect on a climate of robust dialogue. As student and Tufts Community Union President Sam Wallis stated in The Tufts Daily article, "People at Tufts are very often hesitant to say certain things because of the degree of political correctness that students have to maintain and for fear of repercussions."

In the article, Wallis and Reitman both disagree with Tufts being placed on FIRE’s "Worst Colleges" list. However, their quotes in The Tufts Daily illustrate the threats to free expression on campus. As an undergraduate at Tufts, I remember myself and other students finding The Primary Source sometimes offensive, but I also remember it being one of the only voices of dissent on a very politically correct campus. What I don’t remember at the institution I loved, unfortunately, is much discussion about how The Primary Source’s right to free expression trumps offense generated by the publication’s choice of subject matter or presentation.

Schools: Tufts University