Tufts Officials Bar Student and Faculty Groups From Censoring

Tufts University officials Monday barred student-faculty groups from censoring campus publications, reversing a committee’s punishment of a conservative student magazine for publishing editorials that sparked cries of racism.

University officials also overturned the committee’s ruling that forced The Primary Source magazine to use bylines on all published articles and editorials, which magazine editors and free speech advocates said was akin to censorship. University officials kept in place, though, the committee’s finding that the editorials constituted harassment.

“Universities are places where people should have the right to freely express opinions, no matter how offensive, stupid, wrong-headed, ill-considered or unpopular,” Tufts President Lawrence Bacow said Monday in a message e-mailed university-wide. “To say that people have the right to express such views does not mean that we condone them or that they should go unchallenged.”

The Primary Source is a student-run magazine that receives university funding, funneled through the student government. That it receives funding, though, did not spark the discipline. The Committee on Student Life, a group of faculty and students set up to hear complaints on possible violations of students’ rights, became involved because it received complaints from an African-American student and a Muslim student group about the articles. The committee concluded that the editorials created a “hostile learning environment” and amounted to harassment under the student handbook, which defines it as written or spoken attitudes or opinion that are threatening or intimidating.

The group decided to require the magazine to include bylines on all articles, saying it would make it harder for writers to publish “unreasonable attacks on students based on their race or religion.”

Since the faculty-student group issued its ruling late last spring, the university has come under fire from First Amendment watchdog groups, including the Foundation for Individual Rights, which stuck Tufts on its list of the “worst of the worst offenders of speech rights.” The university at the same time faced pressure from Muslim and black students, who held large rallies denouncing the magazine.

In December, the magazine had published an editorial that was a parody of the Christmas carol, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” called it “O Come All Ye Black Folk.” The editorial suggested that African American students admitted to Tufts were academically unqualified. A black student brought a harassment complaint to the student life committee, and hundreds of students signed a petition protesting the magazine, which in the editorial called black people “boisterous” and proclaimed, “Born into the ghetto. O Jesus! We need you now to fill our racial quotas.”

In April, another editorial about Islamic fundamentalism implied that all Muslims were violent and intolerant. The magazine said that many Muslim nations were undemocratic and intolerant of homosexuality.

Neither of the articles contained bylines, and magazine editors and university officials said the byline restriction had the effect of stifling speech. The bi-monthly magazine had run editorials without bylines for years, and using bylines would have exposed the writers to public scrutiny, the magazine’s editors said. Leaders of black and Muslim groups on campus could not be reached for comment Monday.

While public universities have generally allowed student publications to publish what they want, private universities often have been more restrictive, said David Hudson Jr., a staff member of the First Amendment Center, an education group at Vanderbilt University. Bacow’s step of removing a restriction on a magazine is unusual for a private college, Hudson said.

In an interview with the Globe, Bacow said he was uncomfortable allowing any committee of students and professors to decide whether certain speech and writings are offensive or constitute harassment.

“Though we are a private institution, we plan to behave like a public institution when it comes to the First Amendment,” he said.

Douglas Kingman, a former editor of the Primary Source who represented the magazine before the student-faculty committee, praised the university for “righting a wrong” by lifting the byline restriction.

“That’s certainly a win for free speech at Tufts and across the country,” said Kingman, who was not editor when the articles were published.

But Kingman and Matthew Schuster, the current editor of the Primary Source, said Tufts remains guilty of silencing free speech by refusing to change the harassment decision.

“Tufts overturned the censorship, which is an important step, but the dangerous precedent of labeling pieces of political speech harassment is still there,” Schuster said.

Schuster said getting to keep bylines off editorials was critical for the magazine.

“In the atmosphere of Tufts, where students and professors alike attack people who hold minority political views, many students who hold controversial opinions are intimidated from expressing them out of fear they will be ostracized,” he said.

Schuster said the first editorial lampooned the university’s affirmative actions policy but never suggested black students were less capable than whites, despite student groups’ contentions. He said no one has disputed the substance of the Islamic editorial.

Neil DiBiase, president of the Student Senate, did not directly criticize the university’s decision, but said many students have been frustrated that the magazine does not publish bylines on many articles. Students leaders this fall will consider whether to require bylines in all student publications, DiBiase said. “People wanted to know this kind of speech would not be tolerated,” he said.

Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia free speech advocacy group, said the university did not go far enough.

“They still found a newspaper guilty of harassment for publishing something that was verifiably true,” he said, referring to the editorial about Muslim countries. “That’s extremely worrisome.”

“It’s a shame because Bacow can articulate with some eloquence the ideals of the First Amendment,” he said. “This is a step in the right direction but they didn’t undo their most troubling ruling.”

University officials said they did not eliminate the harassment ruling because it represented the committee’s opinion and no longer carried any consequences.

In December, university administrators had condemned the Christmas carol parody, calling it “antithetical to Tufts University’s efforts to establish a community of learning.”