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Student: Tufts Must Improve Free Speech Record

Last week, Tufts University student newspaper The Primary Source lamented Tufts' placement on FIRE's list of the 12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech as well as its poor recent history with respect to freedom of speech. The editor's piece (PDF; see page 4) explores the issues that have caused Tufts to languish on FIRE's Red Alert list, reserved for the "worst of the worst" when it comes to liberty on campus, and to find itself on the "Worst Colleges" list for the second straight year.

Of course, The Primary Source knows all too well exactly what Tufts has done to earn these twin dubious distinctions: the university found that the student newspaper violated the university's harassment policy in 2007 for publishing two protected, satirical articles. For this, Tufts prohibited The Primary Source entirely from publishing anonymous items—ignoring the point that anonymous expression is essential under any meaningful conception of freedom of speech—and further instructed that the student government "consider the behavior of student groups" in future decisions about official recognition and funding. While Tufts, under heavy pressure and criticism from FIRE and others, eventually lifted the punishment, it has to this day failed to reverse the harassment finding. The case thus remains as a stain on Tufts' free speech record.

Of this regrettable case, the Tufts student editorial observes:

Tufts University has nearly unparalleled power in controlling the lives of its students: what we see, what we hear, what we say. The administration's reaction to the Source's misconduct revealed that they could not be fully trusted with this power. No media entity should be forced to rescind anonymity or have its funding threatened, merely because those in power do not like what the media has to say. 

The editorial also correctly notes that following the newspaper controversy, Tufts began work on a new free speech policy, but ended up proposing a new speech code further restricting student expression. In fact, FIRE issued a public comment due to the proposed policy's subversion of freedom of speech in favor of such values as "dignity," "respect," "tolerance," and "civil dialogue." Given Tufts' seeming lack of understanding of what exactly free speech entails, it is not surprising that Tufts continues to earn a "red light" rating, currently maintaining two red light policies and an additional four "yellow light" policies.

Next, the editorial lays out what Tufts' attitude toward free speech should be, and connects Tufts' failures with the problems seen at other schools on our Worst Colleges list:

[T]he way to achieve a tolerant and open campus is through education and social change, not through legal coercion. When the university administration is allowed to restrict one form of expression, that gives it the precedent to restrict other forms. That has been played out in many cases on FIRE's list: University of Cincinnati only allows free speech on one small area of its campus, where all demonstrations and petitions must take place; Michigan State University prohibits unsolicited emails sent to more than ten people; Johns Hopkins enforces a civility code that censors "uncivil, ‘tasteless' and insufficiently ‘serious' speech." 

This is exactly right, and helps to paint the broader picture in terms of where Tufts' free speech record fits with some of the other schools on our list. The editorial's point about fighting "bad" speech with more (and "good") speech cannot be emphasized enough, and I hope someone in Tufts' administration is paying attention here.

Be sure to read the entire editorial (PDF), as it makes a number of worthy points. It is also notable that the same issue of The Primary Source contains a section entitled "Know Your Censorship" (see pages 12-13), which may be useful to students at Tufts and elsewhere. For instance, the piece astutely observes the following about the term "Speech Codes" 

A Speech Code is any rule that restricts free speech in addition to the existing laws governing expression. While often instituted with good intentions, these rules center on verbal offenses, a codification that is often used to limit speech based on abstract conceptions of incivility, blasphemy, and dissent. Tufts has a Speech Code in its harassment policies and its Freedom of Expression Policy, which charges that "Members of the Tufts community owe one another the basic respect and ethical obligations of human beings engaged in a common endeavor." Well-intentioned, yes, but also vague and vulnerable to misuse.

Well said. I would encourage students (and others) to check out this "Special Section" for other helpful explanations of the chilling effect, book burning and newspaper theft, and more.

Our thanks to The Primary Source for its attention to these important issues. With efforts like this from its student body, I hope that Tufts can soon take the necessary steps to remove itself from both our Red Alert list and from next year's Worst Colleges for Free Speech list.

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