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No ‘dissidents’ allowed? Tulane investigating student after op-ed supporting Kanye West

Kanye West signing albums

Tinseltown /

Tulane University announced an investigation after a student “caused much distress” on campus for writing an op-ed in support of Kanye West.

Tulane University said last week it’s investigating a student’s op-ed expressing support for Kanye West, which “caused much distress” on campus. Student Sarah Ma’s opinion piece in the College Dissident, a blog for “Gen Z dissidents,” argues that West — who legally changed his name to Ye in 2021 — should not have been “canceled” for wearing a jacket reading “White Lives Matter” and saying he was going to go “death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE.”

Ye Did Nothing Wrong,” Ma’s headline read.

The next day, Tulane announced in an email to the student body that its Office of Student Conduct was reviewing the matter.

“Tulane strongly condemns all forms of antisemitism, anti-Blackness, and all forms of bias and discrimination,” wrote Erica Woodley, Tulane’s Associate Vice President & Dean of Students.  “While the importance of free expression on a university campus cannot be overstated, words that run counter to our core values impact our community.”

FIRE wrote Tulane today to urge the university to immediately drop its investigation because Ma’s comments — however offensive to some — are fully protected by Tulane’s commitment to freedom of expression. Words that impact Tulane’s community can certainly elicit criticism, including from the university itself. But per Tulane policy, offense alone cannot prompt institutional punishment.

As we wrote:

Tulane has a responsibility to protect students from conduct that meets the requirements for actionable discrimination or harassment, but subjectively offensive speech, without more, will not meet this high legal standard. As a normative matter, the principle of freedom of speech does not exist to protect only or even primarily non-controversial or unobjectionable expression. Rather, it exists precisely to protect speech that some or even most members of a community may find objectionable.

Although Tulane is a private institution, it promises students that it is “committed to an environment in which a variety of ideas can be freely expressed and critically examined.” Students may reasonably expect that Tulane’s affirmative commitments to protect students’ “freedom of expression” fall in line with the First Amendment’s protections. Further, we explained to Tulane that Ma’s article does not fall into a category of speech unprotected by Tulane’s strong free expression promises, such as discrimination or harassment, which have strict legal definitions. 

Tulane must immediately end its investigation into Ma and make clear that even the speech of dissidents is protected at Tulane.

Although Tulane has not made clear publicly its basis for investigating Ma, we reminded Tulane that it may not justify disciplining Ma on the basis that her article amounts to harassment. Actionable harassment must meet the standard set out in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education. For student expression to constitute actionable harassment, it must be (1) unwelcome, (2) discriminatory on the basis of gender or another protected status, and (3) “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victim[] of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.” 

As we explained in our letter:

Here, even if Ma’s article was objectively offensive and discriminatory on the basis of a protected status, there is no credible argument it has deprived any students of access to educational opportunities or benefits. The article expresses certain viewpoints—that Ye had reason to want to go “death con 3” on Jewish people and that Ye should not have been “canceled”—but it does not reference any student at Tulane, nor does it target any student. Additionally, Tulane policy makes clear that “the perceived offensiveness of a single verbal or written expression, standing alone,” cannot be sufficient to constitute hostile environment harassment.

Tulane’s investigation alone violates the university’s commitment to freedom of expression, as the investigation will certainly cause a “chilling effect” among student dissidents. Instead of launching an investigation, Tulane should have performed a preliminary review of Ma’s speech to determine it was protected, without announcing the review to Ma or all university students and parents.

Tulane could have expressed its disagreement with Ma’s speech while reaffirming its commitment to free expression. This approach would have been one of “more speech” rather than censorship — which all universities should use as an alternative to censorship.

Tulane must immediately end its investigation into Ma and make clear that even the speech of dissidents is protected at Tulane.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).

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