Collegiate speech

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Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

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Tufts University recently heard a debate pitting free speech against the university’s anti-harassment policy. On May 10, the Committee on Student Life delivered the blow — free speech: 0, cuddly, non-confrontational school atmosphere: 1. At a place where ideas and dialogue ought to abound, why does Tufts seek to stifle those exchanges?

Here’s what happened: In December, the Primary Source — Tufts‘ conservative newspaper — printed what was meant to be a satirical Christmas carol mocking affirmative-action policies. A few months later, during Tufts‘ Islamic Awareness Week, the newspaper ran a piece which intended to highlight the violent nature of some radical Muslims. Both pieces were admittedly over-the-top. Several student groups, perhaps rightly so, were offended and claimed they felt harassed by the news organization. As a punishment, the Primary Source may no longer publish unsigned editorials.

Herein lies a huge point of contention. Michael Hiestand of the Student Press Law Center told the Tufts Daily — which is not, incidentally, being forced to provide a byline on every article and editorial — that “to find somebody guilty of harassment when there is no individual being harassed is pretty extraordinary,” and that there must be “some individual person who feels victimized.” At Tufts, as at many universities, the bar for harassment is set far lower: It is defined as behaviors that “constitute a threat, intimidation, verbal attack or physical assault.” Broad, indeed.

The point of the “everything printed must have a byline” punishment is presumably to keep students from writing editorials that might offend the sensibilities of some students. The faculty chair of the Committee on Student Life, Barbara Grossman, said, “The Primary Source can continue to print what it chooses, but it should not have the shelter of anonymity from which to launch hurtful attacks.” But as Mark Fitzgerald wrote in Editor & Publisher: “Unsigned editorials are not an evasion of responsibility — far from it. They represent a publication taking a stand, and putting all its institutional history and community standing on the line.”

Also, because Tufts never outlined punishments for future offenses, it is unclear whether this will deter supposed offensive items. And therein lies the rub: The students who write for the Primary Source said that the school administration is deciding what is and isn’t allowed to be printed, a stance that reeks of censorship. However, since Tufts is a private school, many are arguing that the students aren’t necessarily protected under the First Amendment, which also protects anonymous speech. Even if the university can legally prohibit students from expressing contentious ideas, it shouldn’t. President Lawrence Bacow should heed his own advice — “the appropriate response to offensive speech is more speech, not less” — and reinstate the time-honored tradition of the unsigned editorial.

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