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Editorial | FIRE is wrong in naming Tufts in its ‘12 worst’

Published: Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 07:02

Most universities welcome the news that they have landed in the top 10 or 20 in a set of national rankings. But these days, Tufts is topping all of the wrong charts, ranking as one of the 12 worst schools for free speech in an article printed last month in the Huffington Post by Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

FIRE — an advocacy group that pushes for civil liberties in academia — also named Tufts as one of six schools on its "Red Alert" list published in August, which denotes that Tufts is generally one of the worst infringers on students' rights. It amounts to a "worst of the worst" distinction, an accusation any school would take seriously.

Though certainly eye−grabbing and a cause for concern, FIRE's rankings are inherently flawed. The nonprofit group based its decision to rank Tufts among the "12 worst" on two controversial articles printed in conservative campus publication The Primary Source in the 2006−07 academic year, one which satirized affirmative action and another about Islamic extremism.

While these incidents still remain sensitive on campus, FIRE must remember that it has been close to four years since they took place. At the time, they sparked vigorous debate and resulted in a thorough review by the university. The Committee on Student Life, composed of faculty and students, ruled soon after that the Source was guilty of harassment and creating a hostile environment.

Tufts also unveiled its Declaration on Freedom of Expression in 2009, an action that largely stemmed from the Source controversy. Although the document admits that free speech on campus is "not absolute," it states conclusively that free expression is integral to the academic experience.

Suffice it to say that the university did not take the issue lightly, but instead weighed heavily on its response in an effort to avoid precisely what FIRE accuses it of: infringing on students' rights to free speech.

Responsible dialogue between students is not stifled at Tufts. And when issues do come to the fore that touch on sensitive topics like race and religion, the university does little — if anything — to stunt discussion on campus. In fact, if administrators do step in, it is more often than not to promote a healthy discussion and a safe environment in which to hold it. Consider last semester's "Wrenchgate" incident involving an African−American male who was carrying a wrench that was mistaken for a gun. Administrators hosted a community conversation days after in part to address tension surrounding the incident and plan to hold subsequent discussions this semester.

Published comments that are deemed overtly racist or harassing in nature warrant review. The "free speech" that FIRE aims to promote can too easily pave the way for discrimination on college campuses. Tufts' free speech policy does exactly what we want it to do — promote dialogue while protecting the integrity of its students. It is imperative that examples of racism and prejudice do not go unexamined merely to preserve a student's right to say what he or she wants, and in certain cases they should be subject to reprimand.

FIRE is only interested in absolutes. The group needs to have a more holistic, nuanced perspective — one that doesn't cherry pick four−year old events — before making false claims about Tufts or any university.

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