The High Cost of Political Satire at Tufts University

In another instance of what has become a predictable and frequent assault on conservative campus publications, The Committee on Student Life at Tufts has censured the The Primary Source, a student magazine, for running satirical pieces that offended, in two separate instances, some black and Muslim students. Instead of actually functioning as marketplaces of ideas-"a place where controversial expression is embraced," and "an open campus committed to the free exchange of ideas," as described in Tufts' own student handbook-universities continue to punish what they categorize as offensive speech that does not conform to the acceptable, liberal views of politics, race, or sexuality.

While Tufts' official policy extols the merits of unfettered speech, suggesting that students "should cherish the opportunity to be learning in a place where controversial expression is embraced," it turns out that in reality that embrace is a somewhat deadly one for anyone whose controversial comments are aimed at groups perceived to be too vulnerable and sensitive to confront offensive speech with expression of their own views. The offending Primary Source piece, "Islam-Arabic Translation: Submission," which satirized Tufts' "Islamic Awareness Week" with a series of factual points about some of Islam's violent characteristics, "made the Muslim students on campus feel very uncomfortable and unwelcome," according to some of the complainants, and "was uncalled for and demean[ed] all of the work we put into our Islamic Awareness Week."  The publication's punishment includes the prospect of being de-funded and the requirement of now having all stories and editorials signed by authors (a requirement that no other Tufts publication has), presumably so victims can henceforth know exactly who to drag before the Committee for any future offenses.

There are troubling issues here, putting aside the basic question of fairness of punishing a student publication with repressive speech control because it exhibited loutish behavior. The publication was sanctioned, not because it displayed actual illegal harassing or intimidating behavior, but because some individuals were ‘offended' or ‘intimidated' by speech that they were perfectly free never to read. Students have a right to be offended by the speech-even hate speech-of their fellow students and speak back to that speech with speech of their own, but their fellow students also have a Constitutionally-protected right to be offensive, provided their conduct is within the bounds of the law.  

When political correctness first began to engulf our campuses, of course, racist or "hateful" speech was attacked as just that: speech which was unacceptable to those "victim" groups who were perceived as needing protection from freely-spoken opinions-generally members of racial, ethnic or sexual minorities. As a result, speech codes were frequently called for to insulate such individuals from speech that was deemed "hate" speech.

The courts, however, have consistently struck down attempts by public universities to install speech codes, precisely because they deprive students of First Amendment rights they would enjoy without restriction off campus. Universities have therefore had to take a new approach in their attempts to suppress speech whose content they do not approve of: as they did in the current Tufts case, they now deem offensive behavior and speech to be ‘harassing' and ‘intimidating,' not merely expressive.

But the courts have seen through this strategic misrepresentation. In fact, says attorney Harvey Silverglate, co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses,
"Codes banning pure speech are unconstitutional, and, to the extent that speech-by virtue of the time, place and manner of delivery, or by virtue of its physically threatening nature-is harassing, the society's laws are more than adequate to redress violations. Universities . . . do not have the obligation, nor indeed the power, to ban pure speech, no matter how offensive, on the basis of content or point-of-view."
Moreover, Silvergate notes,
"Speech codes, prohibiting speech that ‘offends,' protect ideologically or politically favored groups, and, what is more important, insulate these groups' self-appointed spokesmen and spokeswomen from criticism and even from the need to participate in debate."
So it was revealing that at the one-sided hearing of The Committee on Student Life, while Muslim students were allowed ample opportunity to described how they felt "intimidated" and ‘harassed" by the content of the Primary Source's satire, there was never a discussion of whether the satire was valid, or, if there were inaccuracies or libelous statements, what those were. Instead, the Committee unilaterally determined that this particular and specific speech was unacceptable-and would always be so at Tufts.

For Tara Sweeney, senior program officer at the Foundation For Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Pennsylvania-based advocacy group that defends campus speech controversies and has contacted the Tufts administration on behalf of the Primary Source, "Printing a parody, no matter how objectionable to some, is in no way tantamount to ‘harassment.'"  

In ruling campus speech codes to be unconstitutional, courts have therefore understood the real intent of cases such as the current one at Tufts: not to suppress all speech and attitudes, but merely those ideas with which the moral gatekeepers disagree, those ideas, views, and political beliefs that are unfashionable.  Even when speech is seemingly blasphemous, irreverent, or anti-social, the Supreme Court in the 1989 Texas v. Johnson case stressed that the "First Amendment does not recognize exceptions for bigotry, racism, and religious intolerance or matters some deem trivial, vulgar, or profane."

In fact, other groups and individuals at Tufts regularly engage in expression that might cause some people to feel intimidated, harassed, or insulted. One example is the annual "Gaypril" celebration sponsored by the school's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center, replete with such events as "Queer Sex Now," involving "erotic trends, including the explosion of queer porn, the development of public sex spaces, and the growing exploration of alternatives to monogamy," and other sex-obsessed narcissism that may well intimidate or cause harassment to students on campus who do not embrace or have religious or philosophical issues with this lifestyle or level of effusive sexuality. Of course, no one could ever speak in opposition to a month of homosexual festivities on campus, nor obviously could their complaints about how it harassed or intimidated them ever cause the Committee on Student Life to end funding for the event or cancel future celebrations.

Nor were Tufts faculty members and students ever silenced in 2002 when many of them signed a divestment petition to urge economic sanctions on Israel, an effort to destroy the viability of the State because they had decided that it was an apartheid, colonial settler nation that tramples the rights of victimized, long-suffering Palestinians. Could these very public denunciations of the Middle East's single democracy-political speech by Tufts faculty and students-have possibly been intimidating to Jewish students on campus, Israel's supporters, and others who have a different, more positive view of Israel and its role in the world?  Yes, of course, they could have had that effect, but no one at Tufts attempted to suppress what David Frum has referred to as the "genocidal liberalism" ingrained in these political statements.

Administrators and some students at Tufts seemingly hold the notion that free speech is only good when it articulates politically correct, seemingly hate-free, views of protected victim or minority groups. But great legal minds, including such jurists as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., have always fought for the protection of unfettered speech, where the best ideas become clear through the utterance of weaker ones. For Holmes, the protection of free speech was of particular importance, not only to allow discourse of popular topics, but, even more importantly, in instances where unpopular or hateful speech is deemed offensive and unworthy of being heard.  He obervsed.
"If there is any principal of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principal of free thought-not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., director of Boston University's Program in Book and Magazine Publishing at the Center for Professional Education, writes frequently on higher education, politics, culture, law, marketing, and housing.
In another instance of what has become a predictable and frequent assault on conservative campus publications, The Committee on Student Life at Tufts has censured the The Primary Source, a student magazine, for running satirical pieces that offended, in two separate instances, some black and Muslim students. Instead of actually functioning as marketplaces of ideas-"a place where controversial expression is embraced," and "an open campus committed to the free exchange of ideas," as described in Tufts' own student handbook-universities continue to punish what they categorize as offensive speech that does not conform to the acceptable, liberal views of politics, race, or sexuality.

While Tufts' official policy extols the merits of unfettered speech, suggesting that students "should cherish the opportunity to be learning in a place where controversial expression is embraced," it turns out that in reality that embrace is a somewhat deadly one for anyone whose controversial comments are aimed at groups perceived to be too vulnerable and sensitive to confront offensive speech with expression of their own views. The offending Primary Source piece, "Islam-Arabic Translation: Submission," which satirized Tufts' "Islamic Awareness Week" with a series of factual points about some of Islam's violent characteristics, "made the Muslim students on campus feel very uncomfortable and unwelcome," according to some of the complainants, and "was uncalled for and demean[ed] all of the work we put into our Islamic Awareness Week."  The publication's punishment includes the prospect of being de-funded and the requirement of now having all stories and editorials signed by authors (a requirement that no other Tufts publication has), presumably so victims can henceforth know exactly who to drag before the Committee for any future offenses.

There are troubling issues here, putting aside the basic question of fairness of punishing a student publication with repressive speech control because it exhibited loutish behavior. The publication was sanctioned, not because it displayed actual illegal harassing or intimidating behavior, but because some individuals were ‘offended' or ‘intimidated' by speech that they were perfectly free never to read. Students have a right to be offended by the speech-even hate speech-of their fellow students and speak back to that speech with speech of their own, but their fellow students also have a Constitutionally-protected right to be offensive, provided their conduct is within the bounds of the law.  

When political correctness first began to engulf our campuses, of course, racist or "hateful" speech was attacked as just that: speech which was unacceptable to those "victim" groups who were perceived as needing protection from freely-spoken opinions-generally members of racial, ethnic or sexual minorities. As a result, speech codes were frequently called for to insulate such individuals from speech that was deemed "hate" speech.

The courts, however, have consistently struck down attempts by public universities to install speech codes, precisely because they deprive students of First Amendment rights they would enjoy without restriction off campus. Universities have therefore had to take a new approach in their attempts to suppress speech whose content they do not approve of: as they did in the current Tufts case, they now deem offensive behavior and speech to be ‘harassing' and ‘intimidating,' not merely expressive.

But the courts have seen through this strategic misrepresentation. In fact, says attorney Harvey Silverglate, co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses,
"Codes banning pure speech are unconstitutional, and, to the extent that speech-by virtue of the time, place and manner of delivery, or by virtue of its physically threatening nature-is harassing, the society's laws are more than adequate to redress violations. Universities . . . do not have the obligation, nor indeed the power, to ban pure speech, no matter how offensive, on the basis of content or point-of-view."
Moreover, Silvergate notes,
"Speech codes, prohibiting speech that ‘offends,' protect ideologically or politically favored groups, and, what is more important, insulate these groups' self-appointed spokesmen and spokeswomen from criticism and even from the need to participate in debate."
So it was revealing that at the one-sided hearing of The Committee on Student Life, while Muslim students were allowed ample opportunity to described how they felt "intimidated" and ‘harassed" by the content of the Primary Source's satire, there was never a discussion of whether the satire was valid, or, if there were inaccuracies or libelous statements, what those were. Instead, the Committee unilaterally determined that this particular and specific speech was unacceptable-and would always be so at Tufts.

For Tara Sweeney, senior program officer at the Foundation For Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Pennsylvania-based advocacy group that defends campus speech controversies and has contacted the Tufts administration on behalf of the Primary Source, "Printing a parody, no matter how objectionable to some, is in no way tantamount to ‘harassment.'"  

In ruling campus speech codes to be unconstitutional, courts have therefore understood the real intent of cases such as the current one at Tufts: not to suppress all speech and attitudes, but merely those ideas with which the moral gatekeepers disagree, those ideas, views, and political beliefs that are unfashionable.  Even when speech is seemingly blasphemous, irreverent, or anti-social, the Supreme Court in the 1989 Texas v. Johnson case stressed that the "First Amendment does not recognize exceptions for bigotry, racism, and religious intolerance or matters some deem trivial, vulgar, or profane."

In fact, other groups and individuals at Tufts regularly engage in expression that might cause some people to feel intimidated, harassed, or insulted. One example is the annual "Gaypril" celebration sponsored by the school's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center, replete with such events as "Queer Sex Now," involving "erotic trends, including the explosion of queer porn, the development of public sex spaces, and the growing exploration of alternatives to monogamy," and other sex-obsessed narcissism that may well intimidate or cause harassment to students on campus who do not embrace or have religious or philosophical issues with this lifestyle or level of effusive sexuality. Of course, no one could ever speak in opposition to a month of homosexual festivities on campus, nor obviously could their complaints about how it harassed or intimidated them ever cause the Committee on Student Life to end funding for the event or cancel future celebrations.

Nor were Tufts faculty members and students ever silenced in 2002 when many of them signed a divestment petition to urge economic sanctions on Israel, an effort to destroy the viability of the State because they had decided that it was an apartheid, colonial settler nation that tramples the rights of victimized, long-suffering Palestinians. Could these very public denunciations of the Middle East's single democracy-political speech by Tufts faculty and students-have possibly been intimidating to Jewish students on campus, Israel's supporters, and others who have a different, more positive view of Israel and its role in the world?  Yes, of course, they could have had that effect, but no one at Tufts attempted to suppress what David Frum has referred to as the "genocidal liberalism" ingrained in these political statements.

Administrators and some students at Tufts seemingly hold the notion that free speech is only good when it articulates politically correct, seemingly hate-free, views of protected victim or minority groups. But great legal minds, including such jurists as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., have always fought for the protection of unfettered speech, where the best ideas become clear through the utterance of weaker ones. For Holmes, the protection of free speech was of particular importance, not only to allow discourse of popular topics, but, even more importantly, in instances where unpopular or hateful speech is deemed offensive and unworthy of being heard.  He obervsed.
"If there is any principal of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principal of free thought-not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., director of Boston University's Program in Book and Magazine Publishing at the Center for Professional Education, writes frequently on higher education, politics, culture, law, marketing, and housing.