The Tufts University crew team will be on the river this weekend for the New England Rowing Championships, not in some penalty box designed by a coach who can’t differentiate between governing students’ actions for safety purposes and restricting students’ attempts at humor. Wisely, the university administration has overruled the coach’s grounding of the team.
The flap centers on tank tops inscribed with the phrase “check out our cox,’’ a not-so-knee-slapping reference to both male genitalia and the coxswain who directs the rowers. The ribald shirts worn by crew team members offended some people at the college’s recent spring fling.
No university can create a four-year cocoon for its students. Sooner or later they must take their place in society. And when they do, they’ll discover there is a constitutional protection for offensive humor.
Tufts has a clumsy habit of intermittently trodding on the free speech rights of its students under the guise of promoting respect on campus. In the late 1980s, the university went so far as to create a tiered system of free speech protection and restriction zones. In 2007, a university committee cracked down on political satire in the conservative student press, deeming it harassment.
As in the tank-top case, the university came to its senses after some negative publicity. But it shouldn’t be so hard for a great liberal arts university to grasp the importance of free expression.