Administration bars Tufts journal from printing unsigned editorials

On May 10, editors of a conservative journal at Tufts University issued a news release on their Web site.

At the top of the release, they wrote: “To air concerns, contact: Lawrence Bacow, Tufts University President,”

The statement seemed appropriate, say editors of The Primary Source, the conservative journal printed twice a month, which is now required by the private university in Medford, Mass., to include a byline with every article.

The requirement, enforced by school administrators, ends a practice of unsigned editorials at the journal after the publication angered several students by publishing articles they considered to be insensitive and harassment.

And The Primary Source 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, 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.

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.

Primary Source editors have filed an appeal with James Glaser, dean of undergraduate education. Glaser said the appeal has been decided, but the verdict will not be released until students return to school in September.

Outsiders respond

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

“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 the 1986 case Abramowitz v. Trustees of Boston University that the free-expression rights of private school students could be protected under the state constitution.

The letter also 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.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education also 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.”

Various professional newspapers took stands against the university, one of them choosing a seemingly ironic medium: an unsigned staff editorial.

In a July 5 editorial, The Washington Times charged that Tufts is seeking to stifle ideas and dialogue on campus.

“Even if the university can legally prohibit students from expressing contentious ideas, it shouldn’t,” the editorial said.

Mark Fitzgerald, a columnist for Editor & Publisher, said in a June 23 column that he is alarmed when an institution such as Tufts University claims that it “cherishes both freedom of speech and expression” while ordering a student publication to byline everything it publishes.

John Leo, a columnist for The New York Sun, named Tufts President Bacow “the worst college president” of the academic year by giving him the “Sheldon Award.” The satirical honor is named after Sheldon Hackney, the former president at the University of Pennsylvania where a student was charged with racism after he called a group of students “water buffalo.”

In a column in June, Leo described the award as “like the Oscar, except the Oscar features a man with no face looking straight ahead, whereas the Sheldon shows a man with no spine looking the other way.”

Extending the ruling

The byline 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 five days a week.

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 Tufts Daily strongly defended the journal’s right to freedom of press in staff editorials.