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November 30, 2009

Tufts Still Struggling With Free Speech

"Trustees Approve Free Speech Policy," said the November 30th headline in the Tufts student newspaper. This purports to be good news, but this is Tufts, a university addicted to bragging about free expression on campus while introducing yet another version of its long-discredited speech code.

The one-page "Declaration on Freedom of Expression at Tufts University" contains many nice sentiments on the value of free speech (as do most speech codes), but than veers into the importance of respecting "community values" and "the need to exercise freedom of expression and inquiry in ways that respect the human dignity of others."

"Human dignity" strikes us as a new entry in the speech code business. Normally the campus censors warn against hurt feelings, teasing and causing discomfort. To demand respect for "the human dignity of others" sounds positive and harmless, but almost any passionate argument or satirical comment on campus can easily be construed as harmful to someone's dignity.

Tufts has spent almost three years trying to disentangle itself from the mess it created in trying to pacify the diversity lobby over two satires published by the conservative campus journal, The Primary Source. One was a quite crude satirical carol, "Come All Ye Black Folk", making fun of affirmative action. The other cited factual material about some Muslim beliefs and practices as a way of criticizing Islamic Awareness Week on campus.

Tufts announced that the journalists would be punished and banned anonymous articles in any campus publication. In response to howls of protest from free-speech advocates, the administration decided not to punish the students and eliminated the no-anonymity rule. But it refused to lift the harassment judgment against the students. As a result, it is one of the "red light" campuses on the anti-free-speech list maintained by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

The new Tufts statement does not call for punishing speech but it does say that "Members of the university community, including academic and administrative leaders, must hold accountable those who do not respect (community) values." Hold accountable? A better way to put it is that those who are offended by speech should give up trying to punish and simply engage in some free speech of their own.

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