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Advocacy group: Tufts one of worst colleges for free speech

The university’s respect for student freedoms comes under attack

Published: Friday, February 11, 2011

Updated: Friday, February 11, 2011 10:02

Free speech

Aalok Kanani / Tufts Daily

The Primary Source in the academic year 2006-7 printed two controversial articles which the university later said amounted to harassment. In response, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has named Tufts one of the worst colleges for free speech and student rights.

Whether it's the Israeli−Palestinian conflict or the decision to go trayless in the dining halls, it seems that Tufts students are always engaged in a debate of some sort. Though the university prides itself on open discussions and diverse opinions, Tufts has recently come under attack for violating the freedom of expression, raising the question about just how lively campus debates truly are.

In a Jan. 27 article for the Huffington Post, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) Greg Lukianoff named Tufts as one of the 12 worst colleges for free speech. Citing two incidents from the 2006−07 academic year in which the university found conservative campus publication The Primary Source guilty of harassment, Lukianoff wrote that Tufts "has consistently adopted policies and practices that censor student speech."

The incidents in question involved the university's decision that The Primary Source had violated Tufts' non−discrimination policy after printing a controversial satire of affirmative action titled "O' Come All Ye Black Folk" and another concerning Islamic extremism.

The pieces, both of which were anonymous, sparked intense controversy on campus at the time and elicited a hearing before the Committee on Student Life (CSL) after individual students filed harassment charges against the publication.

The CSL in 2007 ruled that the Source was guilty of harassment and creating a hostile environment. The body also imposed a byline requirement on all articles, but Dean of Academic Affairs for Arts and Sciences James Glaser, who served as dean of undergraduate education at the time, overturned this portion of the ruling. He said at the time that a rule against anonymity amounted to punishment of free speech.

Later, in November 2009, the Board of Trustees approved a university−wide Declaration on Freedom of Expression. The declaration stated that the freedom of expression was "fundamental to the academic enterprise," but was "not absolute."

Though the Source controversy and subsequent CSL decision occurred over three years ago, they have landed Tufts not only a spot on Lukianoff's "12 worst" list, but also one of six spots on FIRE's "Red Alert" list. The list, which came out in August, named FIRE's worst offenders of student rights. In addition to Tufts, Bucknell University, Michigan State University, Colorado College, Brandeis University and Johns Hopkins University make the list.

According to an advertisement placed by FIRE in U.S. News and World Report's "Best Colleges" issue, "Red Alert institutions have displayed severe and ongoing disregard for the fundamental rights of their students or faculty members and are the ‘worst of the worst' when it comes to liberty on campus."

Tufts' decision to declare the Source guilty of harassment did nothing but discourage debate and dissenting opinions on campus, FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley said.

"If somebody is uncomfortable with the way you're expressing your opinion and willing to call you a harasser and punish you, that really impoverishes the intellectual discourse on campus," he told the Daily. "Why bother disagreeing with something if you know you might get in trouble for it?"

Disagreements, Shibley said, are a natural part of the process when it comes to intellectual discourse and debate.

"Hurt feelings are part of the human experience," he said. "They're part of the human condition, and as long as people are individuals, we're never all going to agree on the same thing, and there's always going to be disagreements. Free speech in our society, a free society, has decided to deal with the fact that we're never all going to agree on particular issues."

Shibley encouraged campus administrators not to let "hurt feelings" interfere with the right to free speech.

"The fact that someone has free speech isn't affected by how other people feel when they hear that speech," he said. "Let's say I use my freedom of speech to advocate abortion rights, and there might be other people on campus who find abortion to be murder and are very pro−life. If I hurt their feelings, or they might be horrified or disgusted to hear about my pro−choice belief, that doesn't mean that I don't have the ability to speak freely about my opinions.

"So the fact that people are sometimes offended, sometimes they find their feelings hurt, or they have their capabilities challenged by free speech, is only part of the function of free speech itself," he said.

Dean of Student Affairs Bruce Reitman thoroughly disagreed with FIRE's branding of Tufts and believed the organization has exaggerated a lack of free speech on campus. According to Reitman, it is just as essential to acknowledge offensive material as it is to allow that material to exist.

"That's the purpose of community learning — so that we have those conversations that at times include the voice in the community that says, ‘they don't have the right to say that,'" Reitman said. "I think that's an ingredient of that conversation. It always will be. I will always support a person's right to say, ‘they don't have the right to say that,' because that's their opinion."

Reitman said that FIRE itself is guilty of not truly respecting the freedom of expression.

"If FIRE is saying we are at fault because we are restricting people from having an opinion that can be voiced, aren't they doing exactly that by saying a group of people doesn't have the right to call something harassing behavior?" he said. "I think they're hypocritical even in making this argument. So they're saying that people don't have the right to call something what they think it is. So they're the ones in my mind who are talking about censoring."

Tufts Community Union President Sam Wallis, a senior, while in agreement with Reitman that FIRE's claims are off−base, did express concern about Tufts students not being able to convey their opinions freely.

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