Tufts Love and a Campus Uproar

By: Mark Fitzgerald My name is Mark, and I'm an editorial writer. (Hi, Mark!) I've been coming to Editorialists Anonymous ever since I overcame my denial, and admitted that, like all of us here, I am powerless over my byline. And now I've got this anniversary medal! (Clap, clap, clap!)

What I'd like to talk about in group today is my fear that our anonymity is under fire from one of America's most prestigious universities. (Worried murmurs.)

Brothers and sisters, I'm frankly alarmed for our future when an institution such as Tufts University -- which U.S. News & World Report rates the 27th best college in the nation -- can claim with a straight face that it "cherishes both freedom of speech and expression" while ordering a student publication to byline everything it publishes.

It's bad enough that Tufts is teaching the increasingly popular, and pernicious, doctrine that freedom of speech ends at the point it offends the most sensitive soul in the audience. Worse, they may soon be extending this diktat to all its student media, including the unsigned editorials in the Tufts Daily. (Alarmed murmurs.)

And I fear that this censorship by another name may catch on because it has a certain diabolical attractiveness for the many institutions that find the student paper or the campus right-wing sheet annoyances in need of muting.

Like Tufts, they can claim they are not censoring anybody -- just insisting that writers take responsibility for their words. Here's what the university said when it announced the ban on unsigned material at the campus' twice-monthly political paper: "The Primary Source can continue to print what it chooses, but it should not have the shelter of anonymity from which to launch hurtful attacks."

And who can argue with that?

Well, we all should. It's not just that unsigned editorials and commentaries are an American tradition going back to Benjamin Harris's Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick -- a newspaper seized and banned with its first and only issue, remember.

Unsigned editorials are not an evasion of responsibility -- far from it. They represent a publication taking a stand, and putting all its institutional history and community standing on the line.

When I started writing the editorials for E&P some years ago, there was discussion about making them signed pieces. That would devalue them considerably, I argued. Editor & Publisher has not just the privilege to comment on this industry from its unique position as the only independent journal of the newspaper industry -- it has a duty to make its views known as forcefully and clearly as possible.

Unsigned commentary also imposes useful discipline on the writer, forcing him to put the view of the publication before his own opinion.

Certainly over the years, I've steered E&P's institutional view on some issues. We used to cheerlead for (joint operating agreements) JOAs -- now we'd love to see the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970 go the way of the Federal Communication Commission's ban on cross-ownership. The old E&P also had a knee-jerk animus towards editorial and production unions that was insulting not simply to justice, but to a big part of our audience.

On the other hand, some of the most forceful editorials I've written advocate positions I don't personally hold. If Congress re-imposes the "death tax" tomorrow, I'm fine with that as an American citizen. But E&P, it seems to me, should argue on behalf of the family publisher.

Here's some background on how the earnest desire to provide a "safe" and "welcoming environment" is steamrolling the First Amendment on the Tufts campus.

Tufts has been home since the early 1980s to The Primary Source, which bills itself as the school's "Journal of Conservative Thought."

It's the sort of paper that finds a natural home at expensive private colleges. Somehow, there's never a Journal of Conservative Thought at Cuyahoga County Community College or the Stark County Extension School of Kent State -- but there's always one at Dartmouth or Colgate.

Its writers are smart and opinionated and privileged. (Kids, please don't write to tell me what a humble job your daddy, or, anyway, your grandpa had.) At some point they fell into the thrall of William F. Buckley Jr. or Russell Kirk or Ayn Rand. They're young at a great school with great futures awaiting -- and in some mysterious way, this stirs in them the self-image of an oppressed minority.

Another characteristic of these fearless foes of political correctness is that they're accident-prone, to put it charitably, when it comes to mining humor along America's third rail of race and ethnicity. There's always a cringe-inducing "parody" that starts badly, ends worse, and that, you want to believe, will cause the writer to shiver with embarrassment well before his first class reunion.

And so it goes with The Primary Source. For its Christmas issue last year, it published a number of dreadfully leaden parody carols, including "O Come All Ye Black Folks," an allegedly humorous send-up of affirmative action in the Tufts admission process.

Here's a couple of sample stanzas:

O sing, gospel choirs,
We will accept your children,
No matter what your grades are F's D's or G's
Give them privileged status; We will welcome all.
O come, let us accept them,
O come, let us accept them,
O come, let us accept them,
Fifty-Two black freshmen.

All come! Blacks, we need you,
Born into the ghetto.
O Jesus! We need you now to fill our racial quotas.
Descendents of Africa, with brown skin arriving:
O come, let us accept them,
O come, let us accept them,
O come, let us accept them,
Fifty-two black freshmen.

The predictable reaction shook even the Source, a paper that proclaimed in 2000: "We do not bow to political pressure or political correctness, and our opinions are never blunted by the fear of retribution."

Well, maybe just this once.

The paper's then-editor promptly apologized, and the piece was pulled from its Web site. (It lives on, of course, elsewhere in cyberspace.)

Some months later, the paper published another parody, this a mock advertisement that assembled quotations from the Koran to argue, as its headline said, "Islam Arabic Translation: Submission."

This being academia, these slights weren't resolved with furious arguments late into the night at the local Rathskeller, but in front of something called the Committee on Student Life.

A student lodged a formal complaint that the publication of "O Come All Ye Black Folks" constituted "harassment" and the creation of a "hostile environment." The school's Muslim Student Association alleged the same things about the Islam piece.

In April, the committee held a hearing for five hours that I can only imagine passed excruciatingly slowly. I wasn't there, but I can just see the posturing by young and confident students going all eek-a-mouse as they pretend to be traumatized by lame parodies. Throw in the right-wingers' persecution complex, and that special solemn smugness of tenured faculty who get to be judges, and you've the kind of earthly suffering you'd hope would at least knock off some time in Purgatory for all present.

The other day, the committee pronounced the Prime Source guilty on all counts, finding the violation of the private college's policies was "unequivocal."

The committee then made a show of balancing the First Amendment against being a warm and cuddly campus -- and guess which won?

"Determining the appropriate consequence was more complicated because of the principles involved," the student life committee chair, Barbara W. Grossman, wrote. "Tufts University cherishes both freedom of speech and expression and is also committed to maintaining an environment where everyone feels welcome and safe. The Committee's deliberations and decision demonstrate its dedication to both principles."

Far be it from me to argue with someone who appends a PhD. to her name on official statements, but, no, Tufts does not demonstrate a dedication to free speech by censuring it -- let alone by banning unsigned editorials and other material.

A university spokesperson told me earlier this week that no decision has yet been made on extending this ban on unsigned material to the Tufts Daily and other student media, but the committee's preening description of its decision in the Source matter makes that a pretty darn good bet.

I couldn't track down anyone from the Source on this summer break, but the paper has said they'll fight the ban, as would the Daily, its editor has also said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has gone to bat for the right-wingers, condemning the action, which it acknowledges is Tufts' right as a private college, as a violation of the basic principles of free speech. Various other groups are reminding Tufts that the cure for offensive speech is more speech.

I'd wonder, too, what kind of students Tufts wants to graduate: Men and women who can confidently deal with challenging and even offensive ideas -- or children who need their comforting bedtime stories?

But that's just my opinion. I'm Mark, and I'm an editorial writer.


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