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Progress for Freedom of Speech at Tufts

FIRE’s press release today announces that our efforts to revive free speech at Tufts University have finally yielded some real progress. Throughout the past year, Tufts made a mockery of free speech by finding the conservative student newspaper The Primary Source (TPS) guilty of harassment and creating a hostile environment for printing two satirical articles about race-based admissions and militant Islam. Tufts’ decisions to proceed with a hearing on these charges, to find the paper guilty, and to impose sanctions that placed the paper’s existence in jeopardy—all while paying lip service to the significance of free speech in the university environment—led FIRE to make Tufts an inaugural member of FIRE’s Red Alert list.

Tufts’ step forward on Monday consisted of a statement released by Tufts University President Lawrence Bacow, in which he wrote, “I think that the [Committee on Student Life] was ill-advised to hear this case,” and went on to promise that Tufts will henceforth protect its students’ right to freedom of speech:

While Tufts is a private institution and not technically bound by First Amendment guarantees, it is my intention to govern as President as if we were. To put it another way, I believe that students, faculty, and staff should enjoy the same rights to freedom of expression at Tufts as they would if they attended or worked at a public university.

Sadly, Tufts is already showing that Bacow’s words may not reflect the reality on campus. Bacow’s statement accompanied the release of the long-awaited decision on the appeal that TPS filed after its May hearing. That decision, written by Dean of Undergraduate Education James Glaser, overturns the only actual sanction Tufts had imposed—the prohibition on printing anonymous editorials. But the appeal decision goes no further, leaving the harassment finding and the implication that the student government could cut TPS’ funding in place. Glaser wrote:

The Committee on Student Life imposed a by-line provision on The Primary Source. Imposing such a provision on one publication in the context of a judicial decision can only be construed as punishment of unpopular speech. To protect freedom of expression at Tufts, I must reverse this aspect of the outcome. I leave untouched the remainder of the committee’s opinion.

Freedom of expression is a primary value to foster on a college campus. We also wish to encourage civility…. [C]onstructive dialogue does not come from poking a sharp stick into the eyes of others and then inviting them to the table to talk. I encourage the students who write for the publication to examine their role in constructive dialogue in this community. They may choose to ignore this advice, and they certainly have a “right” to do so, but in so doing they risk isolating themselves from those that they seek to engage. (Emphasis added)

So while we have President Bacow on the one hand promising that any rights guaranteed by the Constitution will be ensured at Tufts, we also have Dean Glaser mitigating that promise by leaving the bulk of the unjust finding against TPS in place. In failing to completely overturn the harassment finding, Tufts continues on its course of punishing protected expression and undervaluing actual harassment by conflating it with published satire. This stance is well reflected in Glaser’s implication that students would be better off not exercising this “right” to freedom of speech.

While we welcome the alleviated punishment and statements from Bacow, FIRE still harbors concerns about the state of free speech on the Tufts campus. Until Tufts proves that students are free to speak their minds without incurring official sanction, Tufts will remain on Red Alert.

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