Trustees approve free speech policy
Freedom of expression ‘not absolute,’ Board says
Published: Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Updated: Monday, November 30, 2009 09:11
Tufts' Board of Trustees adopted a university-wide Declaration on Freedom of Expression this month, approving language that extols free inquiry and debate but emphasizes the need "to ensure the orderly function of the educational enterprise."
The Board voted on Nov. 7 to accept the one-page document, which lays out a set of "community values" rather than setting specific policy prescriptions.
The declaration's ratification comes almost two years after University President Lawrence Bacow chartered the Task Force on Freedom of Expression, and nearly three years after the Primary Source, Tufts' conservative journal, ignited a firestorm of debate over First Amendment freedoms at Tufts when it published an anonymous Christmas carol parody about affirmative action and later ran a controversial article, also anonymous, about Islamic fundamentalism.
The document, which the university has not released to the public, states that
"[f]reedom of expression and inquiry are fundamental to the academic enterprise," but "are not absolute."
"When community values are not respected, every member of the Tufts community has an obligation to respond," it says.
Tufts' Office of Public Relations provided the declaration to the Daily last Tuesday.
Bacow assembled the special task force, made up of faculty and staff, in January 2008, charging it with creating a university-wide policy on freedom of expression.
Bacow said in an e-mail that the seven-member team had done "a terrific job on this issue" and had considered the opinions of various facets of the community.
"I am very pleased with the policy adopted by the Board and believe it accomplishes what I hoped it would," Bacow said.
The task force spent three semesters meeting with faculty, administrators and members of the Board, student government and student organizations.
The final declaration outlines "community values" on freedom of expression and inquiry, and describes three situations in which the Tufts community must "hold accountable those who do not respect these values."
Those situations arise when certain speech prevents Tufts community members from inquiring or expressing themselves fully; does not "respect the human dignity of others;" or prevents a community from being "conducive to learning" and letting members reach "their full potential." In any of these cases, the document says, the entire community — "including academic and administrative leaders" — must act.
Alison Hoover (LA '08), who was editor-in-chief of the Primary Source when it published its Christmas carol, objected to the declaration's potential to limit free speech. "Of course, no sweeping statement can please everyone, but anything short of total freedom to express one's opinion is a failure to uphold the value of free and full inquiry and expression," she said in an e-mail.
American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Massachusetts spokesperson Sarah Wunsch praised the document for its measured approach and for emphasizing the importance of freedom of expression in academic settings, although she added in a follow-up e-mail that it did not seem to resonate with Bacow's strong support for freedom of expression after the Primary Source published the two controversial pieces.
"I view this statement as a good thing. I think it's consistent with the law," she told the Daily. "That's assuming that they're not going to use this statement as a way to punish somebody whose speech might be offensive."
Mike Hiestand, an attorney and legal consultant to the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., told the Daily that the declaration succeeds in describing something to aspire to, but "kind of misses the mark" when it comes to protecting free speech.
He said the trustees' requirement that language be civil and respectful and help build a stronger community takes the teeth out of the document's opening commitment to preserving "the anvil of open debate and criticism."
"Tufts' policy is kind of like an anvil with padded safety corners," Hiestand said.
Bacow commissioned the task force after Dean of Undergraduate Education James Glaser, with the president's support, cited freedom of speech concerns in overturning a ruling against the Primary Source. Tufts' Committee on Student Life (CSL) had convicted the Source in May 2007 of harassment and creating a hostile environment by publishing its anonymous, racially controversial pieces; the CSL had further ruled that the magazine could no longer publish unsigned articles. That August, Glaser upheld the harassment verdict but rescinded the editorial restrictions.
The task force wrote a number of drafts during its process, with a September 2008 statement of principle evolving into a version that the group submitted to Bacow in April. The president subsequently presented a final draft to the Board at its May meeting.
The ratified declaration largely mirrors the version the task force submitted to Bacow in April, said Task Force Chair Jeswald Salacuse, a professor of law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
In the spring, the task force had collaborated with an ad-hoc trustee subcommittee made up almost exclusively of members with backgrounds in academia. The subcommittee worked on the language over the summer and presented the final text to the full Board this month.
In its edits, the Board softened language related to enforcement. In the second-to-last paragraph of the declaration, the task force had originally set out basic tenets for implementation across the university. The trustees replaced that section with a broader call for a united front against offensive speech.
"An affront against any member of our community is an affront to all of us," the final version states.