Today a number of rightie bloggers are complaining that a conservative student newspaper at Tufts University has been found guilty of “harassment” by the Student Life Committee, allegedly for publishing racist and anti-Islamic smears. Here is what the conservative student newspaper says about it:
Showing profound disregard for free speech and freedom of the press, Tufts University has found a conservative student publication guilty of harassment and creating a hostile environment for publishing political satire. Despite explicitly promising to protect controversial and offensive expression in its policies, the Tufts Committee on Student Life decided yesterday to punish the student publication The Primary Source (TPS) for printing two articles that offended African-American and Muslim students on campus. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has spearheaded the defense of TPS, is now launching a public campaign to oppose Tuftsâ€™ outrageous actions.
The Committee on Student Life (CSL) today released a decision finding The Primary Source, Tufts’ conservative journal, guilty of harassment and creating a hostile environment.
As a result of the verdict, all pieces in the Source must now be attributed to specific authors. The CSL, which is comprised of students and faculty members, also recommended that “student governance consider the behavior of student groups in future decisions concerning funding and recognition,” according to a copy of the decision that was sent to the Daily.
Today’s result stems from an April 30 hearing during which two separate cases against the Source were heard. In one, David Dennis, an African-American senior, said that the Source’s Dec. 6 carol “O Come All Ye Black Folk” constituted harassment and the creation of a hostile environment. In the other, the Muslim Students Association brought the same two charges against The Primary Source for its April 11 piece “Islam – Arabic Translation: Submission.” Both of these Source pieces were unsigned.
Regarding the content of the offensive material, I mostly agree with what Fontana Labs says at Unfogged:
My initial inclination is to say that while publishing this sort of thing is irritating and nasty– like its predecessor, the satirical carol “Oh come all ye black folk,” this item isn’t really intended to spark an interesting conversation so much as it’s intended to marginalize people who get enough of that already– it’s not the sort of thing that should be banned by harassment policies.
Part of the difficulty here, I think, is the tendency for college students in general and “Campus Conservative” types in particular to be a little bit too attracted to the idea of stomping on sacred cows no matter what the day-to-day effects. This unfortunate attachment is just increased by going the official-sanction route. Fantastic: more conservative students who are bitter about being kept down by The Man.
My general view is that colleges and universities have an understandably janus-faced view of student agency: sometimes they’re adults, sometimes they’re not. This puts the institution in the awkward position of officially endorsing the virtues of autonomy and free expression while inconsistently applying pressure on uncomfortable exercises of this freedom.
He’s probably right about that. Even though the offensive material has all the literary and intellectual value of used kitty litter, these
children conservative students just get even uglier when they feel oppressed. Better to let them get the bile out of their systems and into public view. Thirty years from now some of them will run for political office, and then their opponents will dig up this muck and leak it to news media, and then they’ll be sorry.
The conservative students argue that since their Muslim piece was factual, it can’t be censored.
A panel consisting of both faculty and students found the publication guilty in flagrant abuse of what harassment case law and regulations actually say, and demonstrating total ignorance of the principles of a free society. Even in libel law (one of the oldest exceptions to the rule of free speech is that you can be punished for defaming people) truth is rightfully an absolute defense. Here, the fact that TPS printed verifiable informationâ€”with citationsâ€”was apparently no defense, nor was the fact that the ad concerned contentious issues of dire global importance. Such an anemic conception of free speech should chill anyone who cares about basic rights and democracy itself.
See what I mean about getting uglier when they feel oppressed? But this argument has two weaknesses.
I understand this newspaper was chartered and funded by the university’s Student Life department. If that’s not true, then what the students put in their newspaper ain’t none of the Student Life department’s business. If it is true, then in effect the Student Life department is the newspaper’s publisher. And publishers, right or wrong, do get the last word on what goes into the publication. That’s not censorship or libel; that’s capitalism. Writers and editors who work for all kinds of publications in the real grown-up world often have very little freedom to write and publish whatever they want. They write and publish what the publisher says they can write or publish.
Student newspaper staffs are forever overstepping the bounds of the principal’s or dean of student’s taste and getting into trouble for it, and the students eternally holler they are being censored, but in reality the youngun’s are assuming a lot more freedom than they’ll have if they go into journalism or publishing when they grow up.
I agree with the conservative student that what they published probably was not libelous, as I understand libel law, but I don’t think that was the problem the Student Life people had with it. The Student Life group thought it created a hostile campus environment for black and Muslim students, which is a different issue from libel.
I can appreciate how nasty it is to be in a hostile environment, but whether the conservative student newspaper by itself was rendering all of campus life hostile is a judgment call. As much as I sympathize with the black student who complained about the racist piece, sometimes it can be a mistake in the long run to enforce the rules of polite society too rigidly. Sometimes you just drive the ugliness underground where it festers out of sight and becomes even more dangerous.
Even though the conservative students put a disclaimer in their publication that their views do not reflect the views of Tufts University, in reality I believe it’s still a publication of Tufts University. If someone were to sue the newspaper for damages — I don’t think that would apply in this case, but let’s pretend — any money rewarded by a court would, I assume, come out of the university’s hide. So I have some sympathy with the university in this case, and I disagree that students have an absolute right to publish anything in a student newspaper.
The moral is, if you want the unfettered freedom to write and publish any damn fool thing you want, you have to pay for it yourself.
My second quibble with the conservative student is his assumption that factuality and truth are the same thing. Alas, it ain’t necessarily so.
It’s the oldest propagandist trick in the world to present carefully selected facts to tell a lie. You could, for example, pick through a biography of Adolf Hitler and compile a list of completely factual statements that would make Hitler himself seem like a perfectly nice guy. You’d have to leave out the part about the Holocaust and World War II, of course, but it could be done.
The point is that an isolated statement may be completely true and still be used to say something that is not the truth. And someday maybe I’ll elaborate on that, but not right now.