Task force drafts declaration on campus speech
Published: Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Updated: Wednesday, September 17, 2008 11:09
The Task Force on Freedom of Expression, commissioned by University President Lawrence Bacow to craft a school-wide speech policy in the wake of the Primary Source harassment scandal, released its first public draft yesterday and requested feedback from the Tufts community.
The draft outlines "a statement of principle" for the university, not a concrete set of guidelines for dealing with free-speech debates, according to Task Force Chair Jeswald Salacuse. It directs members of the Tufts community "to respect the freedom of other community members to inquire and express themselves freely; … to exercise freedom of expression and inquiry in ways that respect the dignity of others; and … to create a climate that is conducive to learning and in which all community members … are free from various forms of harassment and intimidation."
The draft, which the task force will amend after the community provides feedback, seemed to move away from some of the directives Bacow gave the group in his charge in January of this year.
Bacow has indicated his support for guaranteeing all First Amendment rights to everyone on Tufts' campus. He affirmed this in an e-mail to the Tufts community in the wake of the 2006 Christmas carol parody that ignited concerns about how the university balances freedom of expression with preventing harassment.
The Primary Source, Tufts' conservative magazine, released the carol, which many deemed racist, in December 2006. The magazine then released an article on Islamic fundamentalism in April 2007 that many also found offensive. For these pieces, the Committee on Student Life (CSL) found the Source guilty of harassment and the creation of a hostile environment. The CSL ruled to force the Primary Source to attribute all its articles to authors in the future, but Dean of Undergraduate Education James Glaser overturned this restriction. He did not absolve the magazine of its harassment conviction.
On Aug. 27, 2007, Bacow sent out an e-mail stating, "The appropriate response to offensive speech is more speech, not less … While Tufts is a private institution and not technically bound by First Amendment guarantees, it is my intention to govern as President as if we were … I will work with the Board of Trustees to formalize this policy."
In his charge to the task force, written in January, Bacow emphasized the need to preserve "freedom of expression in a way that protects unpopular speech and ideas consistent with the First Amendment."
But Salacuse, a professor at the Fletcher School, told the Daily in an interview yesterday that the task force did not believe the First Amendment held total sway on campus. "The First Amendment does not apply to the university. We are a private university. We are a private educational space. What we tried to define is the freedom of expression and inquiry on this campus, keeping in mind that our fundamental goal is not a political process, it's an educational process," Salacuse said. "We believe that when action takes place that may frustrate the educational process, that's not a good thing."
Yesterday's draft declaration states, "In addition [to government legislation], the university establishes rules to ensure the orderly function of the educational enterprise and to protect the rights of each member of the community to participate in and benefit from the discovery and dissemination of knowledge."
In Bacow's original mission statement to the task force, he wrote, "The Task Force is charged with recommending proposed policy language regarding freedom of expression at Tufts University that can be presented for adoption by the Board of Trustees."
In the interview, Salacuse made clear that the broad statements the task force has put down did not amount to specific laws.
"It is not legislation. It's not rules. That's not what we were asked to do. What we were asked to do is to draft an individual set of principles. And then individual schools would take that [and make their own rules]," he said.
Phil Primack (A '70) said that the draft's unspecific language, which some have assailed as ineffective, "confirms that this is a particular can of worms that would have been better never opening." Primack is a freelance journalist and Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service affiliate who taught a class called "Media, Law and Ethics" in the Experimental College.
"Somebody said it best with, ‘We hold these truths to be self evident,'" he said. "To try to codify policies regarding expression – beyond those already provided by the Constitution and other governing rules – is to bump up against an almost impossible balancing act."
The draft's language is drawing criticism as being too broad to have a significant impact.
"What I honestly believe is the draft is going to have no effect on how we proceed as an organization," said senior Michael Nachbar, the editor-in-chief of the Primary Source. "They wanted to appear that they were doing something. I don't think this rule can be enforced, but it's more a rule [for] decorum."
Primack said he saw the language as overly general and insubstantial. "My broad reaction is, I'm a little puzzled as to why this task force was even created," Primack said. "How many people does it take to change a light bulb?"
Tufts Community Union President Duncan Pickard disagreed, saying that the policy needed to be broad in order to apply to all of Tufts' undergraduate and graduate schools, but that it would be useful to have a codified document on which to base free-speech debates.
"What it should do is just set ground rules that make this campus a safe space for expression and inquiry," Pickard said. "I think what's good about this whole exercise is it will … provide a framework under which these conversations can take place. I don't think that it exists right now; we don't have specific language people can point to."