You call that a muzzle?

Letters to the Boston editor: August 17, 2007
By BOSTON PHOENIX LETTERS  |  August 15, 2007

I usually enjoy your yearly Muzzle Awards, as I did this year. But I am disturbed by Dan Kennedy’s response to a letter you printed on July 27, written by Tufts lecturer David Valdes Greenwood in defense of the university’s actions. Kennedy admits that Greenwood’s facts are accurate, yet insists that the student-faculty disciplinary committee was guilty of censoring the Primary Source, a student-run magazine. Greenwood’s letter suggests otherwise. He says the committee “cited” the magazine for “harassment” and “creating a hostile environment.”

That the “satiric” line the magazine printed — “O Come All Ye Blackfolk” — is racist seems to be beyond question. So is the right of the magazine to express such contempt for people of color. But if Greenwood is correct — that all the committee did was to recommend that the publication be made to include attribution for its articles — it is the student government that would ultimately decide whether or not to take the committee’s recommendation. Even if the student government did choose to “censor” the magazine, it would still be allowed to publish, albeit without student-activity fees. How does this begin to constitute censorship?

From what Greenwood says, the committee doesn’t have the power to censor the magazine, and it hasn’t tried to persuade the student government to do so, either. Kennedy is concerned about the “chilling message” this sends through the campus. But the “chilling message” to me is that free speech seems to mean only the right of a publication to print whatever it wants, but does not include the right of other institutions within the college to openly repudiate the actions of the publication.

It’s possible that Tufts students are a timid lot, easily cowed by a suggestion from any official organization in the college. But I doubt it. I’ve taught in other Boston colleges for nearly 30 years, and my experience with students is that they don’t often engage in issues that don’t directly concern them, and when they do, they don’t necessarily assume the official organization, whatever it is, is right.

Should the committee then censor itself, rather than speak out against offensive material in a student-funded publication? And what does “censorship” mean, if it is broad enough to include an action that in no way threatens to stop the magazine from publishing? Can we then say that the Phoenix is sending a “chilling message” to its readers about what a college committee should or should not publicly say? “Censor” is a tough word, as it should be; censorship is a scary thing. But because it is such a strong word, its accurate use is very, very important. Unless Kennedy has a different understanding of the facts than Greenwood, he has seriously misused a very charged word.

Karen Lindsey

DAN KENNEDY RESPONDS I am surprised that neither Greenwood nor Lindsey understands that self-censorship is sure to be the result of being dragged before an official disciplinary board, subjected to what Primary Source editor Douglas Kingman described as “an embarrassing show trial," and then cited for having engaged in “harassment” and “creating a hostile environment.”

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