Op-Ed: Free Speech: “Now and Forever”

Since when do promises mean nothing? On Nov. 7, 2009, Tufts’ Board of Trustees boldly expressed the necessity of free expression on the Tufts campus in its Declaration on Freedom of Expression. “Freedom of expression and inquiry are fundamental to the academic enterprise,” the declaration says. “Without freedom of expression, community members cannot fully share their knowledge or test ideas on the anvil of open debate and criticism. Without freedom of inquiry, community members cannot search for new knowledge or challenge conventional wisdom.”

On Jan. 13, 2015, the Daily published an op-ed in which University President Anthony Monaco said the following: “Since its founding in 1852, Tufts has embraced a campus culture that encourages the free and unfettered exchange of ideas. It is what defines us as a university in pursuit of discovery and knowledge, and it is what prepares our students to take on the complex challenges of our times. We cannot have the benefits of education without being open to ideas that test us and sometimes make us uncomfortable.”

This is not the only time Monaco has expressed the university’s dedication to free speech. During his inaugural address on Oct. 21, 2011, he said that “Tufts is a community, above all, where freedom of expression is cherished.”

Most importantly, on April 15, 2012, the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate voted on “A Resolution Supporting Freedom of Expression,” which urged the university to “respect and protect freedom of speech and freedom of expression at Tufts University.” The resolution passed by a vote of 24-0, and the text of the resolution ended in three important words: “now and forever.”

When I posted a draft of Students Advocating for Students’ (SAS) resolution in the Tufts Class of 2019 and Tufts Class of 2020 Facebook pages, I was not requesting anything that this university has not already promised its student body. In fact, by requesting the application of First Amendment protections within the university’s codes and guidelines, SAS’s resolution was in the spirit of Tufts’ founding doctrines as laid out by Monaco. The proposal simply seeks to alter the rules that SAS believe to be in violation of the promises made by the Tufts administration and the TCU Senate.

At this point, it is important to clarify what all of this means. The right to free speech, as established in the First Amendment, is not an absolute right. Supreme Court cases such as Virginia v. Black outlaw, with specific parameters, verbal conduct that constitutes a “true threat” or “intimidation.” Davis v. Monroe outlaws sexual harassment, and a multitude of other cases also proscribe unacceptable forms of verbal conduct. Even a cursory understanding of the First Amendment would indicate that safety and free speech are entirely compatible. Therefore, despite the inappropriate mischaracterization of SAS’s proposal by members of the TCU Senate, who posted on Facebook that they “will fight against any initiative that attempts to codify or condone any type of harassment as acceptable on this campus,” a resolution calling for First Amendment protections of speech does not in fact find harassment and threatening language permissible.

Public schools are legally obligated to operate under the First Amendment’s parameters as established by the Supreme Court and Congress, which is not to say that all public schools fulfill this obligation. Private schools, on the other hand, are not legally required to grant constitutional rights, but they ought to feel morally compelled to grant free expression, especially when they market themselves as great defenders of this freedom.

A university’s primary purpose is to facilitate the quest for knowledge. Criticism, uncomfortable views and taboo opinions are necessary for this quest. If conventional ideas are never challenged, then the beliefs held by the status quo are maintained by prejudice rather than certainty. Insulation from critical views creates dogma; engagement with critical views develops knowledge. In short, a school that denies its students freedom of expression is violating more than simply its moral, and/or legal, obligations to its student body; it is failing to respect its primary reason for existence.

When Tufts’ policies prohibit or discourage a series of undefined forms of conduct  — “offensive” emails, verbal conduct that is “not becoming of a Tufts student,” “inappropriate language,” “derogatory language,” gender bias, “inappropriate” communications — students are not properly made aware of what they can and cannot say. Rather than having a free marketplace of ideas, Tufts is placing invisible premiums on views without properly communicating to its students the high price to be paid for expressing certain opinions. To be clear, SAS is not alone in this view, as Tufts was listed as one of the top 12 worst colleges for free speech in 2012 by Greg Lukianoff in the Huffington Post. The intention of SAS’s resolution is to rid Tufts’ codes and guidelines of its ambiguous language and clarify these policies with the parameters established by the First Amendment. According to the TCU Senate resolution passed in 2012, this is something the university should have already done.

When free speech is unprotected in public schools, students have the ability to sue their institution and regain their rights. Students at private schools do not have the luxury to obtain free speech through litigation, but they do have the ability to hold their administration and student government accountable for their promises. Signing SAS’s petition does just that.

To add your name in support, or to request that your name be added to our resolution’s anonymous tally of supporters, please contact me at [email protected]. Additionally, if you would like members of SAS to come speak with you, your on-campus organization, your athletic team, your fraternity or your sorority, please contact me at the above email.

Our university needs a transformation. If SAS’s resolution passes, then we can all flourish at a wide institute of liberty; if SAS’s resolution fails, then we will remain trapped in this tall tower of ivory.

Editor’s note: If you would like to send your response or make an op-ed contribution to the Opinion section, please email us at [email protected] The Opinion section looks forward to hearing from you.