Protesting Expression at Tufts

The Tufts takeover of Nov. 28 was singularly wrong-headed. That morning, more than 20 Tufts University students occupied the undergraduate admissions office, remaining in Bendetson Hall for 36 hours until the university revised its policy on discrimination. The students were protesting the exclusion of senior Julie Catalano, who is bisexual, from a leadership position in the Tufts Christian Fellowship (TCF) last April; while discrimination based on sexual orientation is forbidden at Tufts, TCF countered that the decision was based on Catalano's refusal to view homosexuality as immoral. Unfortunately, both in medium and message, the protest ignored the central importance of open and free discussion in a campus environment.

At a very basic level, the concept of taking over a building is in conflict with a culture of dialogue. The proper use of demonstrations and rallies is to promote discourse that might otherwise have been flagging, to compel students and administrators to confront the issue and consider where they stand. Occupying a building is of a different breed, and just because a protest is non-violent doesn't mean it's non-coercive. To the extent that it interferes with the university, that it harasses and annoys instead of persuades, the protest represents coercion rather than dialogue. "We get our policy, you get Bendetson," as the signs at Tufts read, is not the kind of deal student protesters can legitimately offer.

Yet regardless of the protesters' tactics, their message was still flawed. On a university campus, freedom of expression would be near-meaningless without the freedom of expressive association. Such associations--including the impromptu group that led the protest--allow for close debate on a smaller scale and provide for the organization of student efforts and advocacy; they make campus discussion more vibrant and participatory. And if associations are to play these roles, those who would claim to speak for a student group may legitimately be expected to share in its credo.

Simply put, it is legitimate in such cases to discriminate on the basis of belief--or, to use less charged language, to use belief as a factor, perhaps even a prohibitively important one, in choosing the leadership of a student group dedicated to advocacy and expression. Expressive associations have a unique interest in picking leaders who will represent their interests and will stand for their platform.

It would be an overwhelming restraint on the ability of associations to participate in campus discussion to do otherwise--to allow a Catholic student group but forbid it from inquiring whether a leadership candidate is heretical, or to allow Harvard Students for Choice yet force them to ignore whether a candidate is anti-abortion. The legitimacy of an official student group that views African-Americans as inferior (or homosexual acts as immoral) might be hard for some to justify, but once the university decides to allow the group, it must be able to choose leaders who accept its articles of faith.

Furthermore, if we are to find a value in unfettered dialogue, we may not use the process of university registration as a weapon against unpopular groups, even if it means countenancing views which we abhor. Unrecognized groups have few opportunities to sway student opinion--no rallies, no postering in the Yard, no leaflets in front of the Science Center. And allowing recognized groups to use belief as a factor doesn't require the acceptance of all forms of religious or political discrimination; there is still the goal to be met of furthering expression and open dialogue.

Excluding Christians from the leadership of the Biology Club could not have the same expressive justification as excluding creationists from the leadership of the Darwin Society. Groups must be allowed to decide for themselves what they stand for, but once this message is established, the administration can legitimately require that beliefs beyond this message must be tolerated.

Yet many of the protesters hold that the distinction between discrimination based on belief and that based on a state of being, such as gender or ethnicity, is disingenuous. Catalano based her case on the idea that because she is bisexual, she should not be forced to consider that part of her identity immoral--that she should not be expected to give up her "self-acceptance of identity." By that logic, heterosexuals who disagreed with TCF's policy would be out of luck, since their opposition has nothing to do with their own identity.

Furthermore, if an attempt to change a belief were viewed as a challenge to identity, if certain subjects were simply not up for moral debate, there could be no discourse. A campus debate between Democrats and Republicans would quickly founder as soon as one side claimed for its views the unchallengeable sanction of identity.

Such a position requires us to discern those beliefs that are central to identity and those that are not, which are essence and which accident--and who could tell a future Catalano that what she sees as her core beliefs are in fact changeable? Denying her the ability to define her own identity seems as monstrous as any type of belief-based discrimination, yet a campus that conflated identity and "self-acceptance" would require it.

The fact is, an articulable credo is always different from a state of being--and the use of the former as a factor in leadership has a particular relevance when attempting to spur dialogue on a college campus. In this unique environment, we are exposed to more viewpoints than at any other time in our lives; it is sad that in an effort to promote tolerance, the Tufts protesters would instead focus their ire on the very system that allows for discussion and understanding.

Stephen E. Sachs '02 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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