With free speech policy, Tufts community seeks civil dialogue

This January, the shooting of 12 people at the offices of French satirical magazinCharlie Hebdo shocked the world, and brought the topics of free speech and religious sensitivity to the fore. The violence sparked discussions across campus, where free speech has been a major topic of debate, and where both students and the administration have actively sought to build a campus that embraces differences of ideas, understanding, and active engagement.

According to University Chaplain Reverend Greg McGonigle, an interfaith group of students is planning a panel program to discuss the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the relationship between free expression, education and religious and cultural respect this April. The panel will include Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Humanist voices.

“We hope that many from across the university community will join us for that conversation,” he said. McGonigle also affirmed his belief in the individual’s right to free speech.

“There is no justification for such violence, and the violence that has taken place must be condemned; people of all faiths have affirmed that the publication of offensive cartoons, no matter how egregious, can never approximate the value of a human life,” he told the Daily in an email.

Muslim Chaplain Celene Ibrahim-Lizzio expressed similar point of view.

“There is no question that the horrific violence exhibited by the perpetrators of these acts is completely against Islamic law and ethics,” Ibrahim-Lizzio said in a statement to the Daily.

However, McGonigle also made a distinction between free speech and responsible speech.

“Beyond the individual right to free speech, however, many believe there is also a social and ethical question of respect and responsibility — how to responsibly use the rights we have,” he said. McGonigle also noted that a right to free speech doesn’t necessarily validate all speech.

“The Charlie Hebdo events and aftermath cannot help but raise questions about religious and cultural respect. Even as we affirm a right to free speech, we do not need to affirm the content of all speech,” he said.

In November 2009, in an effort to affirm the right of freedom of expression and inquiry, Tufts’ Board of Trustees approved the “Declaration on Freedom of Expression” which asserts Tufts’ dedication to create “an educational community” that “requires an environment of respect, tolerance, and civil dialogue.”

“Tufts is committed to the expression of a wide range of views as an essential part of our mission of teaching, creating new knowledge and contributing to the world around us,” an unspecified university spokesperson said when the Daily reached out for comment.

Despite the fact that Tufts does not have a specific policy on religious sensitivity and freedom of speech, McGonigle believes that the Declaration has “provided a foundation for both values in our community.”

“On the one hand, the right to freedom of expression and inquiry is affirmed as fundamental to the academic enterprise and to our mission as a university,” he said. “On the other hand, the Declaration also affirms the values of our university context, which include respect for human dignity, freedom from harassment, equal opportunity and a climate of civility conducive to learning.”

McGonigle said that the declaration urges members of the community to be responsible for their views, and to be properly informed about the issues to which those views pertain.

“The Declaration requires accountability for those who violate these values, and also places responsibility on all members of the university community to be educated about diversity and to support and empower those who are marginalized,” he said.

In recent years, in its attempts to create an educational community that provides ‘diverse opinions’, Tufts has received criticism for some of its programs and decisions, as well as a number of speakers that it has brought to campus, according to the university spokesperson.

“Last semester, for example, we heard considerable comment from the Tufts community about lectures and programs focused on current issues in the Middle East,” the university spokesperson wrote in an email.

The spokesperson also said that calls for cancellation have targeted speakers or events on both sides of the political spectrum. 

“In the past, there have been protests over speakers ranging from Former President George H.W. Bush to U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren,” the spokesperson said.

Last semester, a protest was organized by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) against Eran Shamir-Borer, former legal adviser for the Israeli Defense Forces, when he came to speak at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy last November. SJP petitioned University President Anthony Monaco to cancel the speaker, calling Shamir-Borer “one of the primary architects of this summer’s massacres in Gaza” in the petition.  The petition also stated: “We cannot allow hate speech to masquerade as free speech.”

According to senior Hani Azzam, a member of SJP, the petition also meant to bring attention to the way the event was selectively advertised.

“We found out about a week before the event was happening … we wanted to bring as much attention as we could to the fact that the event was being held,” Azzam said.

 According to Azzam, SJP hoped to make the event known to the broader community in order to promote discussion and bring it to the attention of those that might not support it.

“We thought that with our petition [and] op-eds that [were] published in the Daily, that would be an effective way to make it known that somebody like that is coming to campus, because one of our main issues with the whole event was how it was advertised, only through the Hillel website and a Fletcher newsletter,” Azzam said.

Azzam asserted that their protesting the speaker did not equate to the silencing of opposing views.

“The reasoning behind our action in general was not to silence the speech of the people who disagree with SJP’s action or goals, but … the main complaint was the way the event was structured,” he said.

According to Azzam, SJP believed that the event didn’t provide the opportunity for proper discourse.

“The event was so restricted and advertised to such a small community, it only serves as a reinforcement of that viewpoint rather than an open exchange of multiple viewpoints,” he said.

Azzam also called the event a tacit endorsement of Shamir-Borer’s position by the university.

“The fact that it was hosted specifically by Fletcher, rather than a student organization … it was the university providing with the platform, an institution,” he said. “Those are our main concerns, in the same way that institutions … that are apolitical, should not be endorsing or providing a platform for a message that whitewashes massacres.”

Despite the emails and petitions from SJP members and alumni, the event was held. SJP held a die-in in the lobby during the event, as well as a vigil outside for those killed in Gaza. 

Azzam said that in response to the petition and the subsequent protest, President Monaco sent the group an email afterwards stating that Tufts has “policies in place regarding the appropriate conduct of demonstrations on campus,” and that Tufts is “fortunate that our student groups adhere to those policies and are generally respectful of those who disagree with their views.” 

The university spokesperson explained these policies in more detail, and stressed the importance of respectful actions.

“While our policy supports the presentation of a full spectrum of ideas, it does not allow the unlawful violence or destruction of property; harassment or threats to individual members within our community; or impeding the ongoing activities of teaching, learning and scholarship,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson also noted that the university has rejected petitions for the cancellation of speakers in the past.

McGonigle believes that criticism and opposing views are important, but also that such criticism must be informed. He said that the academic study of religion is a crucial part of maintaining constructive criticism as it ensures religious hatred is not a part of this criticism.

“In an academic environment, it is important that all things are presentable for critical and responsible examination,” he said. “That includes the long history and global manifestations of religious and philosophical traditions, which are analyzed and studied in our Religion Department and in other related disciplines.”

He believes that students’ involvement is important in this process, noting that the Interfaith Student Council (ISC) often organizes events aimed at promoting the learning and understanding of religions.

“Beyond the classroom, the work of Tufts’ Interfaith Student Council is intended to reduce religious and philosophical stereotypes and prejudice and support mutual learning, positive relationships, and engagement in common action for the common good,” he said.

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit expressed a similar opinion, as he recognized the important work done by chaplains and the ISC.

“I think our students and chaplains have been seriously involved in building relationships among the religious communities on campus,” Summit said in an email. “Such programs as interfaith text studies, visits to religious services, discussions on interfaith peace-building between Israelis and Palestinians, and joint service projects have had a real impact.”

However, McGonigle believes that the development of a healthy atmosphere of free speech and religious sensitivity at Tufts depends on engagement from the entire community.

“I think that the University Chaplaincy, the Interfaith Student Council, and our partners are doing important work to facilitate respectful and critical learning, dialogue and engagement across religious and philosophical identities and communities,” he said.