The controversy surrounding Tufts University’s speech codes began with six simple words: “Free Speech is Dead at Tufts.”
In April 2016, I founded a non-profit organization called Students Advocating for Students (SAS). Our mission is to educate college students on their civil liberties and empower them to defend those liberties on their campuses. We’re starting at my own campus, Tufts University, where there are many reforms to be made.
Like many schools, Tufts uses highly ambiguous language in its student conduct policies. For example, the university’s Sexual Misconduct Policy (SMP) prohibits “inappropriate gifts or communications,” “comments on an individual’s body and/or appearance,” “sexist statements and behavior,” the use of “terms of endearment,” and gender bias. Tufts’ email policy bans the sending of “offensive” messages. Alarmingly, the school’s Guide To On-Campus Living instructs students to avoid using “hurtful words” or “inappropriate language,” before recommending that students call the campus police if they witness an “act of intolerance.” Policies like this are an unwelcome attack on free speech. They leave students unsure about what they can and cannot say.
When policies lack clarity, administrators lack accountability. Codes of conduct that use unambiguous language provide complainants and respondents involved in a disciplinary case with a clear standard of judgment. At Tufts, no such standard exists. Policies are written with vague language that leave determinations of misconduct entirely up to the discretion of university administrators. There is no way for those accused of misconduct to prove that their words were not “inappropriate,” biased, “harmful,” etc. Additionally, there is no safeguard to ensure that complainants are not receiving arbitrary treatment by administrators. Anything is acceptable when policies are entirely ambiguous.
Fortunately, Tufts allows its student body to petition the administration through a branch of the university’s student government known as the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate. Beginning this past fall, SAS wrote, solicited support for, and sought the passage of a free speech resolution, which called for First Amendment protections to be applied to Tufts’ student conduct policies. While Tufts is a private institution, administrators, as well as the Board of Trustees and the TCU Senate itself, have publicly promised its students free speech rights on campus. This resolution sought to hold these administrators and organizations accountable to their promises.
On September 25, 2016, I wrote a blog post on behalf of SAS entitled “Free Speech is Dead at Tufts.” I posted it on the Facebook pages of Tufts Class of 2019 and Tufts Class of 2020. The blog post encouraged any students who cared about the First Amendment to add their name to our free speech resolution. What happened next was quite astonishing. Immediately, hundreds of Tufts students engaged in online abuse and intimidation. Students called me and my supporters “assholes” and “bigoted fuckheads” for supporting free speech. Some Tufts students, including TCU Senators, went out of their way to ridicule me personally about my gender and race. Ironically, these students violated every single code that they sought to dissuade SAS from altering.
For over a month, SAS sought to add names of supporters to the resolution before taking it to a vote before the senate. However, the hostile online environment replicated itself on campus, and many students who supported SAS’s resolution were simply too afraid to add their name to the public list of supporters. By the time our resolution was brought before the TCU Senate, only five students felt comfortable enough to add their name publicly to it.
During the TCU Senate hearing, on the night of November 20, 2016, the student senators loudly expressed their disdain for free speech. In the end, the resolution failed with not a single senator voting in favor of passing it. As a senior senator stated on her Facebook page the following day, the TCU Senate completed the “important” job of “abolishing the protective restrictions [Tufts has] on free speech.”
The fight for free speech on America’s college campuses has never been more challenging, but it has also never been more necessary. In a polemic against his Parliament, the famous writer John Milton said that institutions of higher education ought to be mansion houses of liberty. If universities don’t allow students to express themselves freely, they will become ivory towers of tyranny.