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Tufts University Puts Newspaper on Trial for Satire

Today, Tufts University will hold a hearing on charges of harassment, creating a hostile environment, and breach of community standards brought against the independent student publication The Primary Source. The charges were brought by students who were offended by two articles that ran in the paper over the last few months.
As FIRE’s column in this morning’s New York Post explains, the first of TPS’ alleged misdeeds includes running a satirical Christmas carol last December entitled “Oh Come All Ye Black Folk.” Although TPS runs a Christmas carol parody every year, December’s carol sparked controversy on campus because it lampooned race-based admissions and contained sentiments such as: “All come! Blacks, we need you,/Born into the ghetto./O Jesus! We need you now to fill our racial quotas.” Realizing that the carol offended large portions of the Tufts community, TPS published an apology on December 6. Yet, four months later, a student filed charges alleging that the carol constituted “harassment” and created a “hostile environment.”
Other students have filed similar charges in reaction to TPS’ April 11 piece, “Islam—Arabic Translation: Submission,” a satirical advertisement that ridiculed Tufts’ “Islamic Awareness Week” by highlighting militant Islamic terrorism. The complaint addressing the April 11 article stated:

This advertisement has made the Muslim students on campus feel very uncomfortable and unwelcome, isolating us from the Tufts’ student body. It was uncalled for and demeans all of the work we put into our Islamic Awareness Week not to mention the negative and wrongful portrayal of our religion.

That complaint went on to state: “[TPS] printed the Danish cartoons last year and now this. We are outraged.”
The articles mentioned above categorically do not fit the bill for “harassment” or creating a “hostile environment.” Rather, they are the kind of controversial speech that the First Amendment exists to protect. And while Tufts, a private university, is not legally bound by the First Amendment, it makes extensive promises to its students about their right to freedom of speech which it is bound to uphold. Such charges would be immediately dismissed if brought in a court of law, as the articles’ offensiveness was not so severe, persistent, and pervasive that it denied someone of the chance to benefit from his or her educational experience. Students trying to avoid exposure to the articles in question could simply have chosen not to read them, and any possible offense would have been avoided.
Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow published an editorial in The Tufts Daily last week criticizing TPS for its controversial material, but nonetheless saying that TPS should not be censored because “[t]he First Amendment protects freedom of speech and that includes most offensive speech.” Tufts’ policies reiterate this protection of free speech; the “Message from the Dean of Student Affairs” contained in the 2006-2007 student handbook The Pachyderm advises students,

You should anticipate controversial dialogue about issues important to you and that you may be shocked when another student voices an opinion radically different from yours. We should cherish the opportunity to be learning in a place where controversial expression is embraced.

But if school policies purport to respect freedom of speech for even the most offensive expression, and the president ostensibly acknowledges students’ rights to print such material, then why conduct a hearing today?
Tufts administrators would be wise to realize that satire can be funny, clever, perceptive, and illuminating, even if it is offensive. Just look at publications like The Onion, which draw thousands of readers every day, despite—or because of—their irreverent humor.
FIRE has written a letter to President Bacow, urging him to dismiss all charges against TPS for its articles. We again call on Tufts to live up to its institutional commitments to uphold free speech by cancelling today’s hearing, thus sending a message that free expression on campus is to be celebrated, not punished.

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