Tufts University panel ends unsigned editorials in campus journal

MASSACHUSETTS — Administrators at Tufts University are now requiring editors of a conservative journal on campus to include a byline with every article, ending a practice of unsigned editorials, after the publication angered several students by publishing articles they considered to be insensitive and harassment.

But The Primary Source, the conservative journal printed twice a month, may not be the only publication affected as administrators are looking to extend the decision to other media on campus, including the student newspaper, The Tufts Daily.

Primary Source Editor in Chief Matthew Schuster said this requirement is a way to censor viewpoints that are not mainstream and do not conform to the university’s standards of political correctness.

“We’re fighting it,” he said.

The policy, which ends a 25-year tradition of unsigned editorials at the Primary Source, was created after students filed two complaints against the journal in response to articles published in 2006 and 2007.

David Dennis, a student at Tufts, a private university in Medford, Mass., objected to a parody Christmas carol about affirmative action, called “O Come All Ye Black Folk,” which he said constituted harassment and the creation of a hostile environment. The Muslim Student Association brought the same charges against a mock advertisement, titled “Islam Arabic Translation: Submission.”

The university’s handbook, The Pachyderm, defines harassment as “attitudes or opinions…expressed in words, in e-mail, or in behavior” that “constitute a threat, intimidation, verbal attack or physical assault.”

The Tufts Committee on Student Life conducted a hearing in April. After the five-hour trial, it determined that the articles did constitute harassment and ordered all published material to be “attributed to named author(s) or contributor(s),” according to the decision.

In addition, the committee, composed of students and faculty members, recommended “student governance consider the behavior of student groups in future decisions concerning funding and recognition,” according to the decision.

The committee justified its decision by saying “although students should feel free to engage in speech that others might find offensive and even hurtful, Tufts University’s non-discrimination policy embodies important community standards of behavior that Tufts, as a private institution, has an obligation to uphold,” according to the decision.

Primary Source editors have filed an appeal with James Glaser, dean of undergraduate education. The dean is expected to release his ruling in June, said Suzanne Miller, a university spokeswoman.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts sent Glaser a letter, asking him to reverse the committee’s decision.

“The sanction imposed on The Primary Source, prohibiting it from publishing any anonymous articles, violates basic principles of freedom of speech,” the letter reads. “This punishment runs afoul of the protection under the First Amendment that has been accorded by the U.S. Supreme Court to anonymous speech.”

Although the First Amendment does not typically limit the ability of private schools to censor, a Massachusetts superior court said in 1986 that the free expression rights of private school students could be protected under the state constitution.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education also has defended the Primary Source and its right to political speech.

“By issuing this decision, Tufts University is saying that its students are not strong enough to live with freedom,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said in a statement from the organization in May. “Satire and parody are so strongly protected by the U.S. Constitution precisely because they may offend or provoke. Tufts knows that the proper cure for speech one dislikes is more speech–but it has instead elected to meet controversial speech with repression. We call on the president of Tufts to overturn this unwise and illiberal decision.”

However, university officials do not seem to consider the policy a form of censorship. In a statement released days after the verdict, Chairwoman Barbara Grossman said the committee worked to balance two important principles: “the freedom of speech and expression” and “maintaining an environment where everyone feels welcome and safe.”

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,” Grossman said in the statement.

The policy applies exclusively to the Primary Source, but a university spokeswoman said many officials would like to see the policy extend to all campus media.

Public Relations Director Kim Thurler said she expects the administration to look into broadening the policy as early as this fall. If that happens, the student newspaper, The Tufts Daily, may have to give up its long-standing tradition of printing an unsigned staff editorial on the opinion page.

Howard Ziff, an emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts and a longtime editorial writer, said unsigned editorials are a staple of American journalism. If the Tufts Daily and other campus media lose the right to publish unsigned editorials, they may as well lose their right to publish at all, he said.

“That, in effect, closes the paper,” Ziff said. “If I were there, I’d say ‘OK, see you later’ and close down the paper. You don’t have to live under that kind of restraint.”

Ziff said personally, he does not believe opinion pieces should be printed unsigned. But he added that university administrators should never be put in charge of making those decisions.

“I don’t think anybody from the president of Tufts to the president of the United States has a right to tell a member of the press what has to be signed,” Ziff said. “I think it’s very dangerous to let some power … tell you what should be signed and what shouldn’t be signed.”

Former Tufts Daily Editor in Chief Kathrine Schmidt said she had not heard that administrators were making plans to extend the ruling to other student media.

Schmidt also said that although she did not agree with the content of the Primary Source articles, she and the editorial board at the Daily strongly defended the journal’s right to freedom of press in staff editorials.

The letter from the ACLU offered the university alternatives to censorship, such as holding a forum for journalistic integrity or encouraging students to express opposing viewpoints in letters to the editor.

After the outcome of the hearing, the Primary Source staff posted a news release on its Web site to explain the committee’s decision.

At the top of the Web page, editors wrote: “To air concerns, contact: Lawrence Bacow, Tufts University President, bacow@tufts.edu.”

By Jenny Redden, SPLC staff writer