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Tufts University: So Close, But Yet So Far

As we wrap up 2007 FIRE is proud to have scored victory after victory at universities across the country, but if there’s one case that frustrated me more than any other this year it is the ongoing saga at Tufts University. As loyal Torch readers know, in April Tufts found a conservative student publication guilty of harassment and creating a hostile environment for publishing political satire. Despite explicitly promising to protect controversial and offensive expression in its policies, the Tufts Committee on Student Life decided to punish The Primary Source for printing two articles that offended African-American and Muslim students on campus.

What disturbs me most about this case is that one of the satirical pieces, a parody of Tufts’ “Islamic Awareness Week”entitled “Islam—Arabic Translation: Submission,” consisted of verifiable facts about militant Islam. Back in May I wrote a blog reviewing the full text of the punished ad and concluded:

So does this paint Islam in a nice light? No. Is it one-sided? Yes, but that was kind of the point. The students were responding to what they thought was a one-sided and overly rosy depiction of Islam during Islamic Awareness week. But is it unprotected harassment!? One certainly hopes not, or else “harassment” just became a truly lethal threat to free speech—an “exception” that completely swallows the rule.

Making matters worse, Tufts clearly misinformed New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave the Tufts University commencement address, about its treatment of The Primary Source. In his address, Bloomberg was duped into lauding the university’s commitment to free speech, saying: “the students and the faculty and all of Tufts University deserve an enormous amount of respect because you respected the rights of others to express themselves.” Apparently no one told Mayor Bloomberg that The Primary Source was in fact punished just weeks before his address.

As we explained to Mayor Bloomberg in an open letter also posted on The Huffington Post:

Tufts apparently [...] failed to inform you that TPS was found guilty of harassment not only for the December parody, which mocked race-based admissions, but also for an article appearing in TPS’ April 11 issue ...The article relies on quotes from the Koran, and factual assertions including: “Author Salman Rushdie needed to go into hiding after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni declared a fatwa calling for his death for writing The Satanic Verses, which was declared ‘blasphemous against Islam,’” and “The seven nations in the world that punish homosexuality with death all have fundamentalist Muslim governments.”

While most of these statements are flatly true (our own research indicates there are, in fact, eight Islamic countries that punish homosexuality by death), Tufts nonetheless found that the article constituted harassment because it allegedly “targeted members of the Tufts Muslim community for harassment and embarrassment, and “Muslim students felt psychologically intimidated by the piece.” To FIRE’s knowledge, such a ruling is unprecedented: a university that clearly promises its students a commitment to robust free speech has found a student paper guilty of harassment for publishing verifiable facts. If publishing factual statements constitutes “harassment,” then “harassment” has become the exception that swallows the rule of free speech.

We never received a response from Mayor Bloomberg, but in August Tufts University President Lawrence Bacow took a significant, positive step by pledging that Tufts students will now enjoy the fullest protections guaranteed by the First Amendment. Unfortunately, the administration failed to overturn the wrongful findings against the newspaper!

While FIRE was very pleased that the punishment against The Primary Source were revoked, the veryfinding of harassment—particularly for the printing of verifiable facts—was the primary reason FIRE was so concerned about the case in the first place. That is why Tufts remains on FIRE’s Red Alert List.

All that remains for Tufts University to do is to overrule the findings against The Primary Source. We recently asked President Bacow again and received a totally inadequate response. If President Bacow really believes what he said about the importance of free speech, he simply must overturn that finding.

So, perhaps possessed by the holiday spirit, I’m going to break from usual Torch style and simply put this directly to President Bacow:

Dear President Bacow,

You have made such progress towards ending the violation of the rights of The Primary Source and vindicating campus free speech. You revoked the punishment, and you publicly declared the primacy of free speech and its principles at Tufts University, but for some reason you have allowed the guilty finding against The Primary Source to remain. Please overturn this finding. Nothing would make me happier in this holiday season than to be able to take Tufts University off of our Red Alert List, our list of schools which we must warn students against attending due to unresolved and serious threats to fundamental campus liberties. If you truly believe in the essentiality of free speech at Tufts University, the finding simply must be overturned.

Happy holidays,

Greg Lukianoff

I hope President Bacow will take this final step and leave this embarrassing incident behind him in 2008.

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