Tufts Reacts to Christmas Carol Controversy

January 22, 2007

Before Christmas, Tufts University’s conservative newspaper The Primary Source printed its annual satirical Christmas carol, called “O Come All Ye Black Folk.” The carol targeted affirmative action and garnered more criticism than previous carols, with several meetings, a rally, and much media attention following on its heels. The Primary Source has issued an apology for printing the carol and removed the carol from its website, but the full text can be found here.

In an article last Thursday, The Tufts Daily reported that Tufts is exploring ways to deal with the fallout from the carol. New initiatives proposed by the administration include:

[A] town-hall-style meeting, a conference on responsible journalism, a Senate ad hoc committee, and efforts to put in place standards for journalistic accountability.

The unifying thread for all the initiatives will be an attempt to address the role of diversity on campus following The Primary Source’s poorly received critique of affirmative action and to translate the emotional response to the carol into concrete programs.

The article also stated that students are looking into cutting funding to The Primary Source:

In the weeks following the publication of the carol, many members of the community called upon the Senate to reconsider the amount of funding that The Primary Source receives, and such requests are still being made.

According to Janice Johnson, the treasurer of the Pan African Alliance (PAA), the group plans to release a survey early in the semester asking students their opinion of The Primary Source.

If students feel that the Source should receive less money, the PAA will present its finding to the Allocations Board (ALBO).

Basically what we’re trying to come to is to have more of a student voice in how student publications are funded,” she said.

If students have such a disdain for how The Primary Source is displaying their message, then they should have a voice in how it’s funded.”

[Student Senate President Mitch] Robinson is open to such requests, although the call for complete de-funding that some students have made will almost certainly not be honored, he said.

The PAA will also support steps to reform standards for student publications. Johnson said the group will call for the use of a Media Advisory Board with some powers of oversight.

While the proposed Media Advisory Board’s role is still yet indeterminate, The Primary Source fears the Board would in effect serve to censor student publications. The “survey” that the PAA suggests and that the Student Senate is considering is also worrisome, as it is no less than a referendum on student press, which would be unconstitutional at a public institution. As FIRE’s Guide to Student Fees, Funding, and Legal Equality on Campus explains (pp. 56 and 64), the landmark student funding Supreme Court decision, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth (2000) established that student fee funding should be distributed to student groups on a viewpoint neutral basis. The decision also established that student referenda, which seek to base the allocation of funds on the popularity of student organizations, are unconstitutional. The decision in that case reads:

The student referendum aspect of the program for funding speech and expressive activities, however, appears to be inconsistent with the viewpoint neutrality requirement. … To the extent the referendum substitutes majority determinations for viewpoint neutrality it would undermine the constitutional protection the program requires. The whole theory of viewpoint neutrality is that minority views are treated with the same respect as are majority views. Access to a public forum, for instance, does not depend upon majoritarian consent. [Emphasis added]

Since Tufts is a private institution, it is not bound by the Court’s decision in Southworth, but FIRE hopes the university will take its cue from the Supreme Court and guarantee full freedom of speech and equality for all opinions on its campus. The situation is worth watching in the weeks and months to come.

Schools:  Tufts University

Cases:  Tufts University: Conservative Student Journal Found Guilty of Harassment