Partially free is better than partially pregnant

August 29, 2007

When the conservative student newspaper at Tufts University published two articles that some at the school considered racist, university president Lawrence Bacow urged the campus to remain calm and to consider the controversy a “teachable moment.” This week, Bacow reversed a joint student-faculty committee penalty against the newspaper, sending the message that if this free-speech teachable moment was graded, some at Tufts would’ve got an “F.”

By the end of this past school year, emotions were running high on the Tufts campus. In December 2006, The Primary Source, a student-run “journal of conservative thought,” published a mock Christmas carol, titled “O, Come All Ye Black Folk,” that criticized affirmative action and drew charges of harassment from black students. This past April, after the paper used unflattering facts about Islam to parody a campus advertisement for Islamic Awareness Week, Muslim students added their complaints, joining the black students in arguing that the articles created “a hostile learning environment.”

In a hearing that the newspaper’s editors have since described as a “show trial,” the faculty leader of the Committee on Student Life dropped all semblance of neutrality and excoriated The Primary Source for its unpopular views. By a vote of 8-1, the committee found the students guilty of harassment and imposed a ban on all unsigned editorials. The committee also hinted that the publication’s student funding would be re-evaluated (see “Well, Shut My Mouth”).

Cooler heads seem to have prevailed over the summer months, as Bacow, along with the dean of the undergraduate college, James Glaser, issued a statement this week lifting the ban on unsigned editorials. And while Glaser and Bacow eliminated the penalty for the parody, they pointedly failed to vacate the joint student-faculty committee’s finding that the parody constituted “harassment.” Thus, in a real sense, while the “sentence” was reversed, it is arguable that the “conviction” still stands, thus creating an unacceptable ambiguity. Bacow then boldly announced in the Boston Globe that he would respect the First Amendment on campus, even though Tufts, as a private institution, is legally free to make its own speech codes.

While Bacow and Glaser should be commended for their eloquent defense of the First Amendment, it’s puzzling that they have not reversed the harassment charge itself. Harassment has a fairly clear-cut legal definition, and to describe these parodies as such waters down the term and renders it meaningless. The ruling also discourages students from engaging in parody, a time-tested and valuable literary device. The threat to academic freedom is particularly grave in the case of the Muslim Students Association flyer parody, as the piece contained only demonstrably factual statements about Islam, complete with footnotes.

While the editors of The Primary Source might be off the hook, a disciplinary ruling that is not flatly reversed maintains some of its power as a precedent. An ominous sword of Damocles still hangs over the head of any Tufts student who wishes to make a social or political point by making fun of someone. Colleges need to learn that poking fun at a sacred cow doesn’t always mean the poor animal’s being harassed.

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