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Tufts should defend, not punish, provocative opinions

Published: Thursday, February 17, 2011

Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011 06:02

Primary Source

Justin McCallum / Tufts Daily

In Tuesday's edition of the Daily, the editorial "FIRE is wrong in naming Tufts in its ‘12 worst'" and the op-ed "More speech, not less, and certainly not hate speech" respond to Tufts being placed on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's (FIRE) "12 Worst Schools for Free Speech" list in The Huffington Post. These two opinion pieces level fairly common criticisms of FIRE and our methods. I write today, as the Justice Robert H. Jackson Legal Fellow at FIRE and a proud alum of Tufts, to address these criticisms and explain further why Tufts deserves its place.

Tufts is one of those schools on FIRE's Huffington Post list that promises students free speech yet suppresses it. This is not just because The Primary Source was found responsible for "harassment" and punished for running two controversial pieces — one on affirmative action and the other on Islamic extremism — but also because Tufts has continued to defend its actions. The piece on affirmative action was a Christmas carol parody entitled "O' Come All Ye Black Folk," and the satirical advertisement for Islamic Awareness Week printed true but unflattering facts about Muslim dictatorships and extreme forms of the religion. Although it has been close to four years since The Primary Source ran these pieces, Tufts' finding The Primary Source guilty of harassment for printing entirely protected political speech remains one of the worst cases FIRE has seen.

Tufts refuses to overturn this finding, which threatens The Primary Source's budget should another harassment investigation occur. Just last week, the administration in the Feb. 11 article "Advocacy group: Tufts one of worst colleges for free speech" defended its decision to punish students for speech that, while offensive to many (including me when I was a Tufts student), expressed pure opinions in a non-threatening way. Furthermore, Tufts' "Declaration on Freedom of Expression" ended up actually being a rejection of controversial speech.

The Daily's editorial, which opposes FIRE's categorization of Tufts as a free speech offender, levels significant charges against us that are worthy of response. The first is that our understanding of free speech is flawed. According to the editorial: "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."

We at FIRE are not arguing from absolutes. A brief perusal of our website illustrates that we recognize that many valid exceptions to First Amendment protections exist that do not chill robust debate. As long recognized in First Amendment jurisprudence, speech that rises to the level of true harassment, threats or intimidation is unprotected. We work with universities to reform their speech policies to balance the need to provide a truly safe educational environment for their student body while fostering an atmosphere in which students can explore dissenting and controversial topics in a variety of ways without being penalized for their viewpoints.

The type of "holistic, nuanced perspective" that the Daily appears to seek is asking for an exception that would swallow the rule. The editorial states that "[t]he ‘free speech' that FIRE aims to promote can too easily pave the way for discrimination on college campuses," arguing that such speech should not be permitted. While I assume the Daily understands that there is no category of speech called "hate speech" that loses its First Amendment protection, it is worth addressing why even speech that some might call bigoted should be part of everyone's conception of free speech.

Students and administrators have the absolute right to express displeasure with speech that is bigoted against certain groups based on immutable characteristics; bigots rightfully are quite unpopular on college campuses, and people should speak out against opinions they strongly dislike. However, when dealing with restrictions and regulations, any definition of "hate speech" would necessarily be so vague as to allow administrators to selectively enforce the restrictions in order to officially prohibit certain opinions. Students (including those who worked on the editorial) and administrators would be, and are, tempted to apply this concept of "hate speech" so broadly that anything that might generate animosity would be stifled.

For example, the op-ed claims that "[t]he Islamo-Fascism article singled out Muslim students on campus, and the Christmas carol parody specifically targeted 52 black freshmen in its verse, implying that each of the black students in the class of 2010 had been admitted under affirmative action policies and [were] thus undeserving of a Tufts education." No one was actually singled out. In fact, The Primary Source's pieces, which expressed political views about affirmative action and Islamic extremism shared by many people, cannot be labeled "hate" if we are to permit pluralism and a multitude of views to thrive. How would the author of the op-ed expect someone to express the view that affirmative action alters the notion of who deserves admission to a selective university without risking offending someone? Additionally, provocative satire is an effective style for communicating one's views, and the ability to use incendiary, rousing speech and parody has also been used to champion civil rights.

Finally, the author of the op-ed states: "The idea that more speech can be used to combat hate speech operates on the assumption that all speech is equal. That is unrealistic. The truth is that the system in place in this country and at Tufts systematically disenfranchises individuals on a number of bases, including their race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc."

This passage is a revealing insight into what happens when certain views are labeled taboo. The author of the op-ed expresses the political opinion that systemic discrimination exists in this country. However, because the author has dismissed those who disagree with this premise as perpetrators of hate speech, he doesn't even realize that he is expressing an opinion about the experience of minorities and women in this country. His expectation that he does not need to defend this opinion (including the "etc."), which forms the basis of his fairly repressive view of free speech, is exactly what happens in an atmosphere where speech is stifled for political reasons.


Erica Goldberg graduated from Tufts in 2002 with degrees in biology and English and from Stanford Law School in 2005. She is currently the Robert H. Jackson legal fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

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13 comments Log in to Comment

Sat Feb 26 2011 07:31
"This discourse simply needs to be educated and not framed in a way that continues to devalue or degrade the opinions of those in the targeted minority."

Devalue? You mean, we are supposed to value every argument with disagree with? People should not be devalued by their skin color, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or by any other aspects of themselves. However, an opinion is not a person. It is also not like people are saying that these opinions are absolute garbage or have no intelligence or thought put into them. As far as I can see, they are merely disagreed with. Again, if you have any counterexamples, I would like to hear them. The fact that the strongest possible examples have not yet been brought up indicate to me that they may not exist, though.

the side bar prints your registered name
Wed Feb 23 2011 18:59
@JumboAlumbo aka H C... you can always ask TuftsUndergrad13 aka Sophia Wright
Wed Feb 23 2011 13:02
PS - "TuftsUndergrad13" demonstrates the typical aggression "victims" at Tufts demonstrate when approached by opposing viewpoints. "IF YOU AREN'T IN FULL AGREEMENT WITH ME THEN GET OUT OF HERE WE DON'T WANT YOU".

Hmmm...reminds me of something else...

Wed Feb 23 2011 12:54
The issue with the Primary Source, in my opinion, is not a matter of whether we as a community are tolerant of racism (I think the blowback from the original article, free from the conflation of defense-of-free-speech, was overwhelmingly negative). It seems more of a matter of just making a slightly tasteless joke, clearly one that the author and editor thought would land, but did not. Is that really the criteria upon which we as Tufts want to base such aggressive and extreme allegations?

But beyond that, there was the issue of the KSA "Bias Incident", which was about as botched as any situation could be, blown out of context by angry Korean Students and then backed up by professional-victims like Sofia Nelson and her crew (angry White people who cling onto other's causes).

Obviously there is a fair degree of free-speech suppression on campus regarding the actions of Israel and Judaism in general, especially as it pertains to Palestine. Students from that region of the world are given some leeway, but for the rest of us, supporting the human rights cause in Palestine is a no-no in mixed Tufts company.

There is also the whole frats-not-flying the rainbow flag issue, which was immediately taken up by a student senator who was (surprise) posting anonymous sex ads on Craigslist under the title "Tufts Guy Seeks Jerk-Off Bro". Clearly he only thinks Tufts students should be allowed to act however they choose when it comes to HIS choices. But DU not flying a flag they don't support? GASP. Forcing someone to show support for something against their will takes all meaning out of the gesture, and walking around campus, I wonder who else amongst my fellow Jumbos does not really support the causes they purport.

I think most of this stems from a general desire of many at Tufts to be viewed as victims, which in almost every Jumbo's case is absolutely ridiculous. Yes some people are, but the vast majority are well-to-do, educated, healthy, and encased in an almost hyperbarically sealed bubble their entire lives.

I think about the things that I (a white man) have had screamed at me on the street by drunken idiots in the real world, and thank GOD I was able to come out of the Tufts community last May with some sense of worldliness and maturity, lest I try to have every stupid drunk guy from Hoboken cited for verbal attacks.

Wed Feb 23 2011 12:26
"Nonetheless, being one of the most openly gay students at this ... when discussions such as these arise."

This is the central basis of and problem with your viewpoint. I see no demonstration whatsoever of systematic disenfranchisement. The example I see is the Primary Source criticizing you. That is not disenfranchisement (no powers or rights have been removed). It is not systematic. That is you being criticized (or perhaps it is more extreme. I do not know specifically what you are talking about), and getting upset. I will just say to you: you have no reason to feel disenfranchized because of some fringe group that criticizes you for who you are. Just don't worry about it. Also, I feel that in part you and others are using their personal hurt to justify arguing this extreme point on restricting free speech, and frankly, they have nothing to do with each other. There are other ways to cope with how you feel than taking away other people's rights and oppressing them, as well. A better goal is to improve your own self-confidence and ability to debate.

On the other hand, you and others HAVE tried to disenfranchize the Primary Source. Whether that is legal or not, or justified or not is another issue. This fact is immutable.

I would just like to say, though, that you will never stop prejudice by disenfranchizing people who express their viewpoints. In fact, you are likely to give them a less favorable opinion of you, which has the opposite effect.

"To those who spend their lives studying race and social justice, racism is a ... in society."

Yes, and you cannot automatically assume that everyone you are arguing against does not recognize that argument. What you are doing right now is making this argument in part against people who recognize that very point as possibly or probably valid, but do not agree with you that hate speech should be restricted. Ultimately, it's a straw-man (whether intended to be or not): a way to avoid the actual issue. These are two unrelated issues, which is why no one arguing against you has brought it up.

A stronger argument would require an actual research-based investigation of the application of CRT to Tufts University. So far, anyone's evaluation of the situation is just as good at the moment. I disagree that Tufts has a major problem with discrimination by the students or administration. I propose that it has a problem of general social tension and division along categorical and other lines by virtually all students. Racial self-segregation and tension at Tufts is an extension of this problem.

If you have a numerous aggregation of examples of things that are undoubtedly discrimination through even just social judgement, I would like to hear them.

Mon Feb 21 2011 15:40
I appreciate everyone's comments, and I am glad that we can all learn from each other. I would like to reiterate that I in no way intended to discount the experience of any groups on campus. My only intention was to point out that labeling pure speech, which contains no threats, as harassment has a crippling effect on free speech, and that is what Tufts has done. Racism is a terrible thing, but decrying someone as ignorant because she doesn't subscribe to your views is unhelpful, and using theories about institutionalized racism (however meritorious) to support censorship can be, in my opinion, quite dangerous. Also, I would like to point out that we must recognize a difference between what we feel people should say and what they are allowed to say, if we want speech to thrive.
Sun Feb 20 2011 17:32
Racism is not hate speech. The Primary Source Christmas Carol was not necessarily racist. People are allowed to disagree with affirmative action. Some people even consider affirmative action to be racist. Nevertheless, if someone wants to voice any of these opinions and their opinion is restricted, then Tufts is going to make the list of speech restricting colleges. Just as you have the right to call Erica's speech "bs", she has the right to say whatever she believes. Free speech used to be a liberal idea... what happened?
Sat Feb 19 2011 21:49
As a current Tufts student it makes me angry that a Tufts Alumni, who no longer lives in this community, can act like she knows what goes on here, in 2011. I have personally been negatively impacted by the ignorance and constant micro and macroaggressions that occur on the Tufts campus. I don't know what gives you the audacity to discount the academic value of Critical Race Theory. Racism is a fact in the United States and especially on the Tufts campus, so please go back to Stanford and take your ignorance with you. Or better yet come and talk to minority students on Tufts campus directly. This conversation needs to be had out in the open, and if anything, you Erica, need to have this conversation so that you can get the education you should have had before you graduated. Peace to you and I truly hope that you make a real attempt to educate yourself instead of spouting this bs.
Fri Feb 18 2011 14:25
" I can see how people could disagree on whether or not the Christmas Carol actually amounted to hate speech."

I couldn't agree with you more. But, If you feel that this is not hate speech (or at the very least, possibly not), then wouldn't you agree that Tufts is stifling free speech by immediately reacting with the possibility of disciplinary measures to an ill-executed and generally unfunny satire that certainly crossed the line into inappropriate? And wouldn't the same situation, repeated in various contexts, contribute to Tufts being named one of the worst free-speech colleges?

It is my understanding that it is only in the eyes of some that "hate speech" has come to mean simply offensive speech. In my (and the United States judical system's) opinion, "hate speech" is speech that directly incites action or violence against a protected minority, which is certainly not the case, or creates a climate in which these types of acts would be tolerated, which is a difficult argument to make about one small (and almost universally disliked) publication at a university.

Also, I would take issue with your pointing those of us who disagree towards critical race theory. CRT is just that, a theory, and a fairly unscientific one at that. In fact, many have critized CRT for not using traditional scientific methods and relying on, as you point out, "personal anecdotes" and similar evidence. Absolutely, we live in an unfair system to many people, but I would disagree that CRT has all the answers. I would also disagree that an almost universally disliked and infrequently read (until attention is called to it by those who oppose it's existence) college publication contributes in any significant way to the major social constructs of our admittedly imperfect and unfair society.

Thu Feb 17 2011 21:03
Hello again,

I love that there can be civil dialogue on the Daily website finally.

I appreciate your concern about the future of the Primary Source and their budget. I'll agree that the effect of the CSL's statement would appear as a warning to the Source to avoid any future activities that might be deemed harassment. Still, I don't necessarily see an issue here.

I wrote my article originally to draw a distinction between a legitimate intellectual investigation and hate speech. While I would have no problem with the Source or any other publication continuing to voice their side of the issue, I don't think anything of particular value is lost in limiting hate speech, as I explained in my original discussion of its basic interests and costs. I can see how people could disagree on whether or not the Christmas Carol actually amounted to hate speech.

To respond to your point about satire, in cases such as this, the function of satire seems more to alleviate the discomfort of people in the majority than to add anything to the debate. The Christmas Carol in particular allows those on one side to share a chuckle, but in an issue such as this that deals with the very worth of human beings, that might not seem appropriate. I find myself moved to consider the well-being of those students targeted as a result of their race as outweighing the need of others to break their discomfort with a prejudiced joke.

In response to your view of systemic discrimination, I'd have to point you to critical race theory. There is a tendency of those in the majority to treat racism as something that only operates on an individual level. Racism to many is only racism if it is blatant. Nonetheless, there have been more than a handful of studies and personal anecdotes that have shown how racism operates beneath the surface, and is in fact institutionalized in a number of ways. To those who spend their lives studying race and social justice, racism is a system and remains a system through the failure of those in the majority to recognize and address the ways in which they are unfairly privileged in society.

I agree with you completely that many of these issues are a result of the inability to talk about these topics openly. It's hard for anyone to come to a conclusion if no one can agree on premises of an argument or even the correct language to use. The only way these problems can be remedied is through continued discourse. This discourse simply needs to be educated and not framed in a way that continues to devalue or degrade the opinions of those in the targeted minority.

Thu Feb 17 2011 17:02
Thank you for your well-articulated response. I am glad to be able to have this dialogue. As far as the budget goes, I am referring to a comment in the file of the CSL's decision declaring The Source guilty of harassment. CSL recommended that "student governance consider the behavior of student groups in future decisions concerning recognition and funding." As a result of this recommendation, finding The Source guilty of harassment for its protected speech has a continuing chilling effect on their speech, because The Source now is on notice that similar articles like the ones for which they were punished could be declared harassment in the future. However, I appreciate that you are personally unwilling to cut their budget.

In terms of my last paragraph, I believe you may have misunderstood my point (and, of course, it is far too vast to cover in one paragraph). I do not wish to invalidate your experience as an openly gay student; I personally think the way gays are treated by many in this country is shameful, and I applaud your activism. That said, the view that systemic discrimination continues to victimize people, and especially the extent to which it victimizes people, are matters of debate about which reasonable people can disagree. Many people treat systemic discrimination (as opposed to direct, observable discrimination) as a fact, when reasonable minds can differ on the issue. Personally, I think it is a result of an inability to discuss these topics openly that leads people to not appreciate a variety of views on the subject.

While The Source may have targeted you for your activism, I respectfully would not consider this disenfranchisement, but rather an instance of speech meeting speech in the marketplace of ideas. You are still entitled to speak out in response, and I hope you do!

Best of luck,

Thu Feb 17 2011 15:47
Hi Erica,

Thanks for your article. I appreciate the well-thought response. I do want to make a few points, however.

First, concerning the threat to the Primary Source's budget, I think you've mistaken the budgeting process at Tufts. The Primary Source remains a student publication funded by the Tufts Community Union through the Student Activities Fee. The university has no particular claim to affect how the students choose to fund their own publication. Nonetheless, were the students (and specifically those on the Allocations Board and TCU Senate) to no longer wish to fund the Primary Source as a result harassment claims, they have every right to. This I think you'll agree is completely legal and reflects decisions such as those in Hosty v. Carter.

That said, having been the Allocations Board Chair for the Primary Source myself, I can assure you their funding is not at risk. If I wasn't willing to cut their budget as a result of their actions, I doubt many others would.

Second, I think you make a false assumption of where I'm coming from in your last paragraph. You argue that, in my stating that systemic discrimination exists in this country, I am myself expressing a perhaps unfair opinion of the lives of others. I will agree that my privilege as a white man does not allow me to speak for people of color, women, or other traditionally marginalized groups. Nonetheless, being one of the most openly gay students at this university, and having been a target myself of the Primary Source for my activism on that front, I personally have experienced that system of disenfranchisement. Characterizing my statement regarding systemic discrimination as merely an opinion, then, serves only to invalidate my own experience - something which the majority often does when discussions such as these arise.

Thu Feb 17 2011 10:13
well written, and very accurate. proud to have you as an alum, erica.

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