Tufts reverses ban on unsigned editorials

MASSACHUSETTS — Tufts University’s administration announced Monday it had overturned a decision banning a student journal from running unsigned editorials. In a separate statement, President Lawrence Bacow said the private school in the future will behave as though it were bound by the First Amendment.

“To put it another way, I believe that students, faculty, and staff should enjoy the same rights to freedom of expression at Tufts as they would if they attended or worked at a public university,” Bacow said, adding that he would work with the Board of Trustees to make that policy official.

But the university let stand the finding by the school’s Committee on Student Life — composed of faculty and students — that two articles in The Primary Source, a conservative journal on campus, violated the school’s policy against harassment.

The articles — a Christmas-carol parody, titled “O Come All Ye Black Folk,” criticizing affirmative action and a mock advertisement titled “Islam, Arabic Translation: Submission” — prompted an outcry on campus. A Tufts student and the Muslim Student Association lodged complaints against the paper last spring.

The committee ruled in May that the articles did constitute harassment and required that all future Primary Source articles carry bylines. The journal appealed the ruling to Dean of Undergraduate Education James Glaser.

“Imposing such a provision on one publication in the context of a judicial decision can only be construed as punishment of unpopular speech,” Glaser wrote in his decision overturning the byline requirement. But he specifically noted that “I leave untouched the remainder of the committee’s opinion.”

Primary Source editor in chief Matthew Schuster said reversing the byline requirement was “a small step in the right direction” but ignored “the most serious and troubling part of the decision.”

“The dangerous precedent of labeling political speech as harassment still stands,” Schuster said. The precedent “opens the floodgates for the administration and other students to just put us up on trial at Tufts.”

And Schuster said the committee’s recommendation that “student governance consider the behavior of student groups in future decisions concerning funding and recognition” could put the journal’s finances at risk. The Primary Source receives about 95 percent of its funds from the student government.

But in an e-mail to the Student Press Law Center, Tufts spokeswoman Kim Thurler said Glaser’s ruling means “the CSL decision no longer has any associated consequence.”

“In effect, the members of the CSL simply expressed their own opinion regarding the offensive behavior in question,” Thurler wrote. “Their opinion does not constitute an official position by the university.”

In his statement, Bacow said the committee was “ill-advised” to hear the case.

“Universities are places where people should have the right to freely express opinions, no matter how offensive, stupid, wrong headed, ill-considered, or unpopular,” he said.

The intent of Bacow’s statement, Thurler wrote, “is to eliminate judicial review of speech that is simply unpopular or controversial. President Bacow will work with the trustees and others this fall to clarify our policies so that the CSL is not put in this kind of awkward position again.”

For More Information:

  • Tufts University panel ends unsigned editorials in campus journal News Flash, 6/5/2007
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