By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A victory for free speech

Tufts University president Lawrence Bacow deserves a lot of credit. Earlier this week, he issued a ringing endorsement of freedom of speech on campus by reversing the punishment that had been handed out to a conservative student publication by a faculty-student committee.

According to the Boston Globe, Bacow overturned a decision that required editors of The Primary Source to put bylines on all articles and editorials. Unfortunately, he left in place a ruling that the publication had engaged in “harassment” and “creating a hostile environment” by running racially insensitive materials. But that’s symbolic. Anonymous speech, on the other hand, is a crucial right.

I wrote about the Tufts case in the Phoenix’s “10th Annual Muzzle Awards” earlier this summer, picking up on previous work by Harvey Silverglate and Jan Wolfe. There’s no question that The Primary Source’s sins against political correctness — which began with the editors’ publishing a mock Christmas carol called “O Come All Ye Black Folk” — were demeaning and sophomoric. But so what?

As the Tufts Daily editorialized at the time:

[H]olding others accountable must not mean threats, either implicit or explicit, of censorship; it must not mean tying funds to “behavior”; it must not mean dictating the style, format or attribution of content. The freedoms we treasure are most honored when we hold others accountable through words of our own, through debate and through the preservation of an open forum for ideas — even ideas we find objectionable.

Offended students were free to ignore The Primary Source, organize a protest or start their own publication. What they should not have done was haul the editors before a disciplinary committee, hector them and approve official sanctions against them. Bacow, at least, recognizes that.

Update: Silverglate and Wolfe praise Bacow for reversing the “no anonymity” provision, but criticize him for allowing the “harassment” finding to stand. They write: “An ominous sword of Damocles still hangs over the head of any Tufts student who wishes to make a social or political point by making fun of someone. Colleges need to learn that poking fun at a sacred cow doesn’t always mean the poor animal’s being harassed.”


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3 Comments

  1. Don (no longer) Fluffy

    Amen!

  2. Darren Sands

    Dan:Free speech, and the liberty therein do not give journalists, writers or anyone else a license to be insensitive to its readership. And surely, as you’ve said, people certainly have every right to ignore the offending piece, the publications and its authors altogether. But how can that same publication profess to serve the public — that is, the Tufts University campus, faculty etc. — and not be held accountable when it makes a mistake? Using parody and satire as a means to commentary on race relations is an old trick of white, conservative college media. The problem is, Dan, as I’m sure you’re well aware of, is that they are really bad at it. These kids, by and large, use first and second level “humor” that is stupid and often deplorable in taste. They fail so mightily, Dan, that they incite an intellectual riot, such as the one that erupted at Tufts. The offended, I should remind you, are impressionable black and brown students of the Humanities; their academic roots — and self-identity — are being cultivated the black intellectual thought that began to emerge in the early 1900s, in black feminist thought and the moral courage of the Civil Rights movement. Yes, the first amendment is vital to the preservation of any modern democracy, including our own. But when that amendment was written, there was no thirteenth, fourteenth or fifteenth amendment. Black and brown people were simply property. Can’t you see the irony here?The Tufts Daily staff should have been held accountable? Should they have been brought in front a disciplinary board? Probably not. Should they be entitled to student activity funds despite what they write in the paper? Sure.But where does the line get drawn for first amendment purists like yourself? It’s not about sins against political correctness. Yes they were demeaning and sophomoric. (“So what?” Dan, I’m appalled.) But the piece resembled a form of blatant discrimination and hatred that forever changed this nation. Self-identity is vital to the success of students of color on a college campus. When that self-identity is diminished, it is disastrous and students lash out. If there is no repentance, there is no justice. That’s why students moved towards something that looked like censorship, towards attempting to control them from offending another group of students. Much like the Civil Rights movement sought to protect another generation from being shut out of the mainstream American establishment. It wouldn’t work in a democracy, but we can’t go around crying victory when we are ALL not victorious.

  3. Rick in Duxbury

    Unfortunately, the zeitgeist on American campuses is closer to Darren than to Dan. Unless the first amendment is protected by “purists”, plan on plenty of cartoons offending a religion, op-eds outraging a political party and nothing ever getting done in the absence of an elusive consensus. “Appalled” indeed. Welcome to the club, Darren. Many of us have shared your outrage for some time, for different reasons. If your biggest threat is “white, conservative college media”, (now THERE’S a monolith for you!), you should be sleeping soundly. “Can’t you see the irony here?” Of someone complaining that others exercise their constitutional rights? Yep, I see. (Sorry if I’m “insensitive”).

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