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Tufts and De Facto Speech Policing

        Last month a student magazine at Tufts University, The Primary Source, was hauled before a disciplinary committee and punished for publishing a satire of affirmative action in December '06 (a Christmas carol entitled “O Come All Ye Black Folk”) and then a harsh critique of Islam, during an official Muslim Awareness Week.  The Committee on Student Life found The Primary Source guilty of harassment and consequently prohibited it from publishing any anonymous material “from now on.” The Primary Source has appealed to Dean of Undergraduate Education, James Glaser, although its right to appeal is unfairly limited to procedural, not substantive questions.  (You can find detailed updates and analysis of the case at the thefire.org, commentary on this blog, “Gag Orders,” and at http://thephoenix.com/article_ektid40095.aspx)

        Fortunately, free speech advocates, in addition to FIRE, are paying attention to this case: the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has written to Tufts President Lawrence Bacow and Dean Glaser, urging them to reverse the decision of the Committee on Student Life.  As the ACLUM letter stresses, the right to publish anonymously is fundamental to free speech; and the finding against The Primary Source violated the university’s own anti-harassment and free speech policies: Tufts guarantees students rights of free expression and prohibits harassment directed against particular individuals, but not demographic groups.  

        The ACLUM letter is clear and unequivocal in opposing official actions against The Primary Source, which should welcome its support.  But in suggesting alternative approaches to “obnoxious or offensive” speech, the ACLUM tacitly endorses unofficial speech policing that can also stifle the expression of controversial minority views.  While rightly stressing that speech deemed offensive should simply be countered with more speech (not censorship,) the ACLUM praises a call for a campus forum on journalistic integrity "to promote dialogue on responsible journalism [but] not to involve itself in censorship of any form,” and cites approvingly a recent “meeting of members of the campus media with professional journalists to discuss the rights and responsibilities of the student press.”

        On their face, discussions of journalistic integrity, or rights and responsibilities, seem beyond reproach, (especially when they explicitly disavow censorship;) but consider their potential effects in cases like this:  In a college community, (or any social group) peer pressure can police speech much more effectively than formal rules and regulations.  Peer pressure is discreet, covert, immeasurably powerful, and much more difficult to counter than obviously and intentionally censorious rules or disciplinary proceedings.  (Indeed, the ACLU national board was recently embarrassed by its own, aborted attempt to enact a fiduciary “rights and responsibilities” policy prohibiting board members from criticizing the ACLU, but it has been quite successful in stifling internal dissent by socially marginalizing or demonizing dissenters.)

        I don’t mean to denigrate efforts to instill high journalistic standards in students. (I’d encourage these efforts, of course.)  I don’t mean to suggest that the ACLUM harbors any desire to silence students; (it has a long, strong, record of defending free speech.)  I do mean to stress the potential silencing effect of forums on journalistic integrity that are organized in direct response to “offensive” articles in a student publication. 

        Conservative students at The Primary Source seem to revel in their outsider status at Tufts: good for them.  But the majority of students (like the majority in any group) generally prefer being insiders.  To silence them, you don’t need rules against speech offenses; you need only signal the social costs of committing them.




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