ACLU Writes Letter to Tufts in Defense of ‘The Primary Source’

June 12, 2007

Tufts University got some added encouragement to reverse its decision against the conservative student journal The Primary Source (TPS) when the ACLU of Massachusetts weighed in by writing a letter to President Lawrence Bacow and Dean of Undergraduate Education James Glaser, who will oversee TPS’ appeal.

Sarah Wunsch, who signed the ACLU’s letter, wrote:

While the ACLU of Massachusetts does not condone or agree with the views expressed in [the December 2006 and April 2007 issues of TPS], the offensiveness of the speech does not turn it into prohibited harassment within the meaning of the university’s policies. We believe that distinguishing between offensive speech and specifically targeted harassment which rises to the level of interfering with another student’s right to obtain an education is crucial to respecting the dual interests in equality in education and freedom of speech. Tufts’ harassment policy makes that important distinction, yet the [Committee on Student Life] has interpreted the university’s harassment policy much too broadly and we ask you to reverse this error.

The ACLU took the opportunity to assail Tufts’ prohibition on TPS’ printing unsigned editorials—a disciplinary action that renowned journalist Howard Ziff has also criticized. The letter cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s protection of anonymous speech in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 514 U.S. 334, 341-342 (1995):

Despite readers’ curiosity and the public’s interest in identifying the creator of a work of art, an author is generally free to decide whether or not to disclose his or her true identity. The decision in favor of anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one’s privacy as possible … Accordingly, an author’s decision to remain anonymous, like other decisions concerning omissions or additions to the content of a publication, is an aspect of freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.

Indeed, following Tufts’ actions against TPS, the paper’s student writers have more reason than ever to want to print their stories anonymously.

TPS has filed an appeal with Dean Glaser, but that appeal addresses only procedural complaints regarding the trial conducted by the Committee on Student Life (CSL), not the Committee’s final decision. In its final paragraph, the ACLU criticized the fact that TPS is left with no outlet to petition the Committee to rethink its decision. The ACLU writes, “To limit an appeal in this way is itself a denial of due process and is inappropriate where serious issues are raised that the CSL decision is at odds with university policies on freedom of speech.”

The letter ends with the plea to President Bacow to overturn the CSL decision. As the pressure mounts for Tufts to address its unfair treatment of TPS, FIRE will be watching closely.

Schools:  Tufts University

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