The administration of Tufts University, whose infamy for disregarding the basic rights of its students and faculty members has landed the college a spot on FIRE’s Red Alert list, has added another incident to its roster of abuses. This time, allegedly under disciplinary pressure from a dean, the director of Tufts’ men’s crew team not only suspended the entire team from racing at a championship event scheduled for this weekend, but also removed two students from the position of captain-all because of this T-shirt:
The crew team had created this T-shirt for the school’s annual "Spring Fling," an outdoor concert. Traditionally, groups ranging from fraternities to dance troupes create T-shirts for the event. (As a Tufts alumna, I have been to four of them.) As you can see, the shirt states "check out our cox" above a picture of a silhouetted boat. "Cox" is short for "coxswain," the person who sits in the front of a boat and directs the rowers (and is obviously also a double entendre in this context).
Most likely hoping to avoid the draconian approach Tufts administrators have historically taken to punishing free speech, the men’s crew director suspended the team from participating in the New England Rowing Championships and removed two captains from their positions.
It seems that the shirt was reported through Tufts’ "bias incident" reporting system, in which students can anonymously report actions, words, or pictures that "target a person or community." Not only that, the dean apparently agreed that the shirt was unacceptable, as reported by Barstool Sports (and corroborated by a case submission to FIRE):
The dean said the picture was too phallic and promoted aggression and rape.
The T-shirts clearly do not promote rape, and Tufts students and crew team members have every right to engage in both humor and controversial speech. Tufts promises its students that it "is committed to free and open discussion of ideas and opinions" and that "Tufts believes free inquiry and expression are indispensable in attaining the goals of the university."
The principle of freedom of speech does not exist to protect only non-controversial speech; indeed, it exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find controversial or "offensive." While the sentiment on the shirt was undoubtedly meant as humor, humorous sentiments (even when seemingly crass or offensive) are not excepted from constitutional protection in the United States. (See generally Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988); FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978)). The Supreme Court stated in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989) that "[i]f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." Similarly, the Court wrote in Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973) that "the mere dissemination of ideas-no matter how offensive to good taste-on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’" Free speech principles do not permit the censorship or punishment of the crew team’s T-shirts under pressure from the dean.
Although the expressive rights of student athletes are not necessarily coextensive with their rights as students, there is no good reason to punish as tame a T-shirt slogan as "check out our cox." If students are too fragile to handle that, just wait until some student group holds an "ugly woman contest" like the one determined to be protected by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Iota Xi Chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity v. George Mason Univ., 993 F.2d 386 (4th Cir. 1993).
Public universities that have attempted to rid their campuses of all traces of sexist speech are consistently chastised by the courts for failing to honor the protections of the First Amendment. Tufts deserves its own chastisement for failing to live up to its free speech promises.
Perhaps the accounts we received are not completely accurate. But if they are accurate as presented, Tufts University has proven yet again that its commitment to open debate is limited to politically correct speech.