Alas, David Dennis, a self-described gay black student frustrated with the Primary Source’s continued presence on campus, breathed new life into the saga this past month. Dennis filed harassment charges with the Committee on Student Life (CSL), a judiciary panel composed of faculty and students, arguing that the three-stanza Christmas carol was a “psychological attack” that caused him to “question [his] own intelligence and capability as a student.” (The horror — the horror! — of having to undergo critical self-examination in college!)
Given the Primary Source’s unpopularity among the left-leaning student body, the complaint resonated. The Muslim Student Association, upon hearing of the upcoming trial, filed a matching complaint about an article from the latest issue, which parodied a flyer for Islamic Awareness Week. (Censorship, it seems, is contagious.) The mock flyer contained sinister factoids about fundamentalist Islam — for example, “The seven nations in the world that punish homosexuality with death all have fundamentalist Islamic governments,” and “Most historians agree that Mohammed’s second wife, Aisha, was nine years old when their marriage was consummated.”
The Muslim Student Association’s reaction is particularly disturbing from an academic-freedom point of view, since the parody contained a list of assertedly factual statements regarding radical Islam. As such, it clearly qualifies as political speech — the category of speech on which the Constitution confers the highest level of protection. It’s troubling, then, that these students reflexively pushed for formal sanctions against their political adversaries, since it raises grave doubts about the next generation of students’ ability to engage in debate without resorting to appeals to censorial authority.
Outsiders following the Tufts fiasco understood that the offended students would not have had a case had these same events unfolded at a public university bound by the First Amendment. After all, the Supreme Court, in its famous 1988 Hustler v. Falwell decision, ruled unanimously that a vile parody, in which the recently deceased Reverend Jerry Falwell described drunkenly losing his virginity to his mother in an outhouse, constituted protected political speech. Similarly, every competent judge knows that the charges against the Primary Source — specifically, that it stereotyped blacks and Muslims — falls far short of the legal threshold of “harassment.”
Sadly, the judiciary board at Tufts had little patience for arguments about the First Amendment or academic freedom. Instead, it excoriated the editors for their unpopular stances. The young journalists were reportedly chastised for their insensitivity by Tufts professor Barbara Grossman, the faculty chair of the Committee on Student Life, feeding a frenzy against the magazine’s exercise of its free speech. During the five-hour hearing, which the magazine’s editor, Douglas Kingman, described as an “embarrassing show trial,” audience members hijacked the agenda and vented their anger at the Primary Source. It ended, as show trials inevitably do, in a conviction.
No laughing matter
Similarly heated student forums took place at Brandeis last week after Gravity, a campus humor publication, ran a fake ad in which a white CEO testified that, for three-fifths the price of a Blackberry device, he bought “Black Jerry” — an African-American man named Jerry to drive him around. The Gravity editors explained that the satire was a commentary on the racist attitudes of white CEOs, meant to show how white privilege — which is rooted in the original Constitution’s three-fifths-of-a-person formula for counting America’s slave population — exists in our society.