The Primary Source, April 4, 2012

Freedom from Censorship

Tufts University is on a list of the top twelve worst schools for free speech once again. The annual list is created by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and takes into account many factors, including legal actions and policies put in place by the universities’ administrations. In the 2006-2007 school year, the Source published two pieces that were censured by the University. The first was the infamous carol about affirmative action, and the second was a special section about Islamic Awareness Week. The administration responded to these pieces by charging the Source with harassment, rescinding our right to publish anonymous work, and threatening our budget. With the legal help of FIRE and the American Civil Liberties Union, we were able to appeal most of those restrictions, but the harassment charges still remain on record.

Most of the time when you hear about these incidents, it is in the context of the Source’s poor conduct. Personally, I agree. The Source should not be used as a vehicle for racism or other forms of prejudice, no matter the motivation or intended effect. But the administration’s conduct also left something to be desired. 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.

Going beyond this incident, Tufts University’s record on free speech is not much better. In 2008, Tufts instituted a new speech code, which severely limited speech under the guise of preventing harassment. Administration policies such as bias incident reporting and BEAT Bias (now SPEAC) have also been used to limit speech on campus. Finally, the use of police forces and threats of expulsion to suppress university traditions such as NQR reveal the power and brutality inherent in a coercive speech environment.

I agree with many advocates of anti-harassment policy that we should be able to live free of fear that we will be attacked or insulted based on our race, gender identity or presentation, religion, sexuality, or the host of other things that are inherent to our self-conceptions. But the 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." We cannot allow speech restrictions of this magnitude to come to Tufts.

Sometimes it is necessary to check yourself, but speech monitoring should occur within the private domain, not as instituted by some outside body. To take a recent example, Sam Daniel’s Daily op-ed on racism at Tufts has been the subject of much controversy. While this op-ed was also submitted to the Source, we chose not to print it, in an instance of self-monitoring. The Daily decided to publish Daniel, and they should not be punished for doing so. Students who disagree with Daniel also have the freedom to do so vocally, and students who feel harmed by his opinion can discuss why and seek resolution. But the administration has no place to interfere.

Good intentions created most of these speech policies. When we feel injured by some statement, it is easy to say that the statement ‘shouldn’t be allowed.’ But when speech is restricted, we are all diminished. We must all work to promote freedom on campus, unbounded by university restrictions that can only result in silence.