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.”