Victory at Tufts after Crew Team Members Suspended for ‘Cox’ T-shirts

By on May 4, 2012

Facing a rising tide of criticism and intervention from FIRE, Tufts University President Tony Monaco reinstated the suspended members of the men’s crew team late on Thursday, just in time for this weekend’s New England Rowing Championships. After the members wore T-shirts reading "check out our cox" (referring to a team’s coxswain), the university had suspended them, pressed as many as four team captains to resign, and asked the members to deliver apologies for the "offense" caused by the T-shirts. Kudos to President Monaco for honoring Tufts’ commitment to free speech.

As I described yesterday in The Huffington Post, the team members wore the T-shirts to celebrate Spring Fling, an annual music party for the campus. Then, someone filed a "bias incident" report, and a dean actually took it seriously and notified the coaches. (Shakespeare never would have made it through Tufts with all of his raunchy puns.) Apparently Dean Bruce Reitman or another dean said that the content of the T-shirt was "too phallic and promoted aggression and rape." 

Team members are not talking publicly, but the news got out. As the story goes, Director of Rowing Gary Caldwell instructed lower-level coaches to punish the students, and then he and the dean would approve of the punishments. As a result, everyone who wore the T-shirts was suspended through this weekend’s championships, as many as four team captains had to resign their positions, and the students had to write apology letters to the dean. 

FIRE is still investigating the facts. Did the dean, as some have suggested, threaten discipline unless the coaches took care of it themselves? Were the apology letters coerced, and did the letters have to include an apology, as President Monaco put it, for "unintentional offense your tee-shirts caused"? Will the team captains be reinstated? And did the team really have a rule against "unauthorized tee-shirts"? (One alum says no but adds that there was such a rule several years ago.)

As I wrote in The Huffington Post, Tufts is a private university, but it promises its students that it "is committed to free and open discussion of ideas and opinions" and that "Tufts believes free inquiry and expression are indispensable in attaining the goals of the university." Parody, satire, humor, and puns are key parts of the marketplace of ideas, and it was unacceptable for Tufts to violate its promises and abuse its "bias incident" policy-designed for reports of genuine problems such as racist graffiti-to decide what jokes may or may not be told on campus.

Sad to say, this is nothing new for Tufts, which has been on FIRE’s "Red Alert" list for years due to its severe violations of its own free speech promises. President Monaco, who arrived at Tufts in August 2011, has inherited the legacy of Tufts’ decades-long reputation for trying to punish "offensive" speech, going all the way back to the "free speech zone" controversy in 1989 and another controversy in 2000. Harvey Silverglate (co-founder of FIRE and chair of FIRE’s board) and Gia Barresi described the situation in an excellent article in March 2000. I quote it at length, but the whole piece is essential reading on Tufts’ history of problems tolerating free speech. They wrote:

The 1989 suppression of speech began when a male sophomore produced and sold t-shirts with the slogan "Why Beer Is Better Than Women at Tufts," complete with 15 reasons, all demeaning to women there. A woman complained to the associate dean of students, and the offender was placed on probation and required to perform 50 hours of community service. Charges were dropped, however, when it was pointed out that the school had no code outlawing such speech (which was no surprise in view of the historic paramount importance of academic freedom on this liberal arts campus). To remedy that gap in order to prevent future "offense," the administration promulgated the "speech zones" plan. When the students learned of this, an ad hoc group dubbing itself the "Tufts Free Speech Movement" went around the campus and physically marked off zones where speech was either "Free" or "Unfree." The university looked like Berlin in 1946. The protest made it clear to students, the news media, alumni, and indeed the world that this major university was seeking to censor its students. The administration, embarrassed and under pressure from a very broad coalition of students, promptly retreated.

It was therefore with considerable surprise that FIRE recently [in 2000] received a copy of a [...] pamphlet entitled "Confronting Intolerance." [...] Lest the message be missed, the pamphlet went on to give "some examples of intolerance" that would qualify as banned "harassment." Here are a few of them:

  • Using demeaning or derogatory slurs
  • Name calling
  • Stereotyping of the experience and background skills of individuals based on their group identity.
  • Treating people differently solely because of their appearance.
  • Making jokes about others’ backgrounds
  • Using words or negative images associated with a group on signs to create a publicly hostile environment

 

And, finally, the crowning insult to liberty

 

  • Attributing objections to any of the above to the "hypersensitivity" of others who feel hurt.

 
[...]

Vice-President Bernstein and Acting Dean of Students Bruce Reitman, agreed to be interviewed on this unnoticed re-emergence of speech restrictions at Tufts. Reitman remembered the 1988 t-shirt imbroglio that resulted in the 1989 "speech zones" regulations soon repealed by President Mayer. He also remembered both the student discussions, teach-ins, and protests that forced the repeal and the embarrassing national publicity that descended upon Tufts. Bernstein, although not then at Tufts, had learned of this painful history. That was why, they assured us, there never again were, nor would there be, speech restrictions at Tufts, which both concurred would constitute a violation of academic freedom.

After a closer examination of the "Confronting Intolerance" pamphlet, both Bernstein and Reitman agreed that the phrase "it can be stopped" could be understood as a warning that mere speech deemed "intolerant" or "harassing" was punishable on the Tufts campus. Indeed, in contrast to the code of the prior decade, the current policy, as interpreted by this pamphlet, did not even allow for any "free speech zone" where offensive speech would be tolerated. In that sense, the current proposed policy and interpretation were more restrictive than those finally deemed inconsistent with academic freedom by President Mayer in 1989. Bernstein said flatly that the phrase "can be stopped" would be removed from the pamphlet when it was revised next year.

In case you missed it, one of the common denominators here is Dean Bruce Reitman. He was there in 1989. He was there in 2000. He undoubtedly was a key player in the 2007 free speech controversy that led to Tufts going on FIRE’s Red Alert list, as well as the next controversy in 2008. And here he is again in 2012, involved in the "cox" controversy.

Tufts’ disappointing history has not gone unnoticed. Today’s editorial in The Boston Globe has it:

Tufts has a clumsy habit of intermittently trodding on the free speech rights of its students under the guise of promoting respect on campus. In the late 1980s, the university went so far as to create a tiered system of free speech protection and restriction zones. In 2007, a university committee cracked down on political satire in the conservative student press, deeming it harassment.

Tufts’ pattern of violating its free speech promises could finally end under President Monaco. I look forward to the possibility of working with him to restore Tufts’ reputation.

Schools: Tufts University Cases: Tufts University: ‘Cox’ T-shirt