How Can Tufts University Get Off FIRE’s Red Alert List?

By August 28, 2008

To continue our series on how the five Red Alert schools named in our U.S. News advertisement can get themselves off the list, today we discuss the situation at Tufts University (we have blogged about how Colorado College, Brandeis University, and Valdosta State University). As you can see, Tufts University is a repeat offender against the principles of liberty on campus, with no less than four separate FIRE cases to its name, including three between 2000 and 2001, when FIRE was still new. Unfortunately, during the intervening years between 2001 and 2006, when the first hint arose of the controversy that would ultimately add Tufts to our list of the "worst of the worst" schools for liberty in America, Tufts appears to have learned very little about the value of freedom of expression that it claims to value.

Tufts’ most recent descent into censorship began in December 2006, when a conservative campus newspaper called The Primary Source (TPS) published a satirical Christmas carol entitled "Oh Come All Ye Black Folk." The piece sparked controversy on campus for its biting parody of race-based admissions. In response, TPS published an apology on December 6, 2006. Four months later, in April 2007, TPS ran another piece entitled "IslamArabic Translation: Submission," a satirical advertisement that ridiculed Tufts’ "Islamic Awareness Week" by highlighting militant Islamic terrorism. That month, students filed charges alleging that the December article constituted "harassment" and created a "hostile environment" as well as similar charges about the piece on Islam.

On April 20, 2007, Tufts’ Committee on Student Life issued a decision holding that TPS had violated the university’s harassment policy by publishing the two pieces. The Committee found that the carol "targeted [black students] on the basis of their race, subjected them to ridicule and embarrassment, intimidated them, and had a deleterious impact on their growth and well-being on campus." The Committee also held that the parody of Islamic Awareness Week "targeted members of the Tufts Muslim community for harassment and embarrassment, and that Muslim students felt psychologically intimidated by the piece." As punishment, the committee banned TPS from running unsigned or anonymous works and also recommended that the student government "consider the behavior of student groups" in future decisions on recognition and funding.

TPS contacted FIRE for help, and FIRE soon wrote Tufts President Lawrence Bacow to protest the committee’s decision. Bacow never bothered to respond to FIRE, but Tufts did somehow convince New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, falsely, that the university had worked out the situation with the utmost respect for free speech. Bloomberg praised Tufts for its handling of the case in his commencement address in terms that made it clear that he didn’t have the whole story. FIRE wrote to Mayor Bloomberg pointing out that, with regards to the finding of racial harassment on the basis of the ad critical of Islamic awareness week: "To FIRE’s knowledge, such a ruling is unprecedented: a university that clearly promises its students a commitment to robust free speech has found a student paper guilty of harassment for publishing verifiable facts. If publishing factual statements constitutes ‘harassment,’ then ‘harassment’ has become the exception that swallows the rule of free speech." FIRE has yet to receive a response from the mayor.

In May 2007, the ACLU of Massachusetts also protested Tufts’ treatment of TPS, and during the summer TPS appealed the committee’s findings. Tufts Dean of Undergraduate Education James Glaser reversed the ban on anonymous speech in TPS, saying, "[t]o protect freedom of expression at Tufts, I must reverse this aspect of the outcome. I leave untouched the remainder of the committee’s opinion." And President Bacow released a statement saying that Tufts "must be vigilant in defending individual liberties even if it means that from time to time we must tolerate speech that violates our standards of civility and respect." Yet the finding that TPS had "harassed" students merely by running the parody articles was inexplicably allowed to stand. For the last year, Tufts’ official line has been that TPS racially harassed and intimidated African-American and Muslim studentseven though the university admits that punishing them for these offenses would violate the principles of freedom of expression.

Despite what President Bacow seems to believe, decisions on freedom of expression are not amenable to half-solutions. There is zero justice in allowing real harassers to go without punishmenthow would that be fair to the victims? The only reason President Bacow and other Tufts administrators like Dean Glaser are willing to let the "harassers" go unpunished in this case is that they know as well as you and I do that what TPS did was not even close to harassment. It is well-nigh impossible for someone to truly be "harassed" by a satirical article in a newspaper. Annoyed? Yes. Hurt? Sure. Enraged? Absolutely. Satire is seldom funny to its target. But neither is it harassment. The only reason that the finding that TPS "harassed" other students still stands is crassly political: President Bacow, Dean Glaser, and other Tufts administrators are afraid that campus pressure groups will be angry with them if they were to do the right thingthe thing that their own stated principles requires that they do. They utterly lack the courage of their convictions, and if the same situation were to occur again, neither FIRE, nor TPS, nor any Tufts student or faculty member has a single reason to assume that it wouldn’t happen exactly the same way. That is why Tufts is a Red Alert school.

So what does Tufts need to do to get off the Red Alert list? Simply this: reverse or expunge the finding that what TPS did was harassment. This will cost no money. No new programs need be created. No employees need to be hired. Until then, Tufts can be assured that FIRE will continue to look for ways to expose and publicize Tufts’ betrayal of the fundamental principles of a free society.

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