Censorship of ‘Cox’ T-shirt Creates Waves of Outrage as FIRE Intervenes

May 3, 2012

My FIRE colleague (and Tufts University alumna) Alison Meyer blogged yesterday about a fast-developing controversy at Tufts, where the men’s crew team has been punished for a rather tame double entendre printed on a T-shirt for Spring Fling (below). All involved rowers have been barred from rowing in this weekend’s New England Championships, and two senior captains have been removed from their positions.

The "cox" in question is, of course, a reference to the crew team’s coxswain. Nonetheless, the T-shirt was reported to Tufts under the university’s bias incident policy, which allows complaints to be submitted anonymously, and a Tufts dean allegedly criticized the T-shirt as promoting aggression and rape. According to a confidential source (not a member of the team), the lower-level coaches were commanded by Director of Rowing Gary Caldwell to choose a punishment, which Caldwell and the dean’s office would then approve.

News of the punishment first leaked yesterday on the Barstool Sports website, whose account was consistent with a case submission FIRE had received earlier. FIRE took the case public shortly after, and sent Tufts University President Anthony P. Monaco a letter stating our serious concerns. As we told Tufts:

Although Tufts is a private university, it promises its students that Tufts "is committed to free and open discussion of ideas and opinions." While the sentiment on the shirt was undoubtedly meant as humor, humorous sentiments (even when seemingly crass or offensive) are not excepted from constitutional protection in the United States. (See generally Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988); FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978)). 

The principle of freedom of speech does not exist to protect only non-controversial speech; indeed, it exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find controversial or "offensive." The Supreme Court stated in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989) that "[i]f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." Similarly, the Court wrote in Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973) that "the mere dissemination of ideas-no matter how offensive to good taste-on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’" Free speech principles do not permit the censorship or punishment of the crew team’s T-shirts.

Furthermore, it is beyond belief that a reasonable person would see the T-shirt as "promot[ing] aggression and rape." Nevertheless, even if many people interpreted the T-shirt in this way and furthermore agreed that a crew boat silhouette is "phallic," these interpretations simply do not justify censorship or punishment.

Today, the crew team’s punishment is being reported by The Tufts Daily (see also the blog In the ‘CAC), which reveals several developments. Notably, the Daily reports that Tufts Dean of Student Affairs Bruce Reitman has denied any Tufts administrative involvement in the punishment of the crew team, that the decision was handled internally by the team’s coaches, and that the student standing of those involved will not be affected. For many reasons, this is an unsatisfactory response. It doesn’t preclude, for one, reports that the crew team director handed out the punishments merely to preempt a coming storm from the Tufts student affairs office. In other words, Reitman’s contention that this issue wasn’t a university matter leaves open the likely possibility that Tufts responded to the T-shirts by going to Caldwell and saying, "Take care of this, or we will." If there is any truth to what we have learned so far, the Tufts administration has seriously violated the university’s free speech obligations.

This also leaves the matter of the bias incident report itself, and The Tufts Daily‘s investigations have confirmed that, indeed, one was submitted:

POST UPDATED THURSDAY AT 11:28 AM: According to several people who heard or saw the text of the bias incident report that was filed, and wished to remain anonymous, the report stated that the shirts were offensive toward women and promoted a culture of rape and sexual aggression.

The Daily continues to investigate, as do we, any possible administrative role in the team’s punishment.

Tufts University has a lot of answering to do to the community. If the comments on the Daily‘s piece are any indication, the response by Tufts students so far has been just about universally against the censorship; a "We Support Free Speech at Tufts" Facebook page was quick to spring up when the news hit. Indeed, what the administration may have interpreted as a diplomatic, peacemaking gesture is now embarrassing the university and being shown for what it is: a heavy-handed smothering of free speech by a university gripped by fear over what may ensue when anything offends anyone. Maybe Tufts students are finally understanding why we’ve consistently rated Tufts as one of the nation’s worst universities for free speech, and are finally getting fed up.

We’ll have more as we receive more on the debacle at Tufts.

Schools:  Tufts University

Cases:  Tufts University: ‘Cox’ T-shirt