In response to recent Title VI complaints made to the U.S. Department of Education alleging hostile environments at some Massachusetts colleges and universities, the ACLU of Massachusetts today sent a letter to the Boston Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The letter urges OCR to remain true to its historical commitment to ensuring that Title VI – a federal law that prohibits any entity that receives federal financial assistance from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin – is applied consistently with the First Amendment, especially during times when campus speech issues are highly controversial.   

“We wholeheartedly support the Department of Education OCR investigating and resolving complaints that students or others are being subjected to hostile environments or otherwise being discriminated against on campus because of their race, national origin or other traits protected under civil rights laws,” the letter states. “We write now to encourage you — particularly in these times of contention regarding events in the Middle East and pressure from Congress and others to address allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia — to take steps to ensure that investigations and enforcement actions do not chill or encroach on the exercise of free expression by students or other members of educational communities. Freedom from discrimination and freedom of expression can and must go hand in hand.” 

The letter asks OCR to make clear to the public and to colleges and universities subject to Title VI investigations that “these investigations are not intended to and will not be used to suppress political speech.” The letter urges OCR to complete its investigations “as expeditiously as possible,” including to avoid unduly chilling speech at other colleges and universities. 

The letter also informs government and campus officials of relevant Supreme Court and other federal court precedent recognizing that political speech – including criticism or praise of governmental action either domestic or foreign – is “at the core of what the First Amendment is designed to protect.” 

Massachusetts schools with pending investigations related to allegations of antisemitic, anti-Israeli, anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian, and/or anti-Arab hostile environments include Harvard University, MIT, Wellesley College, and University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

The ACLU of Massachusetts letter follows another ACLU letter sent to public and private schools across the country, offering university leaders five basic guardrails to ensure freedom of speech and academic freedom are protected on campus. Last week, the ACLU of Massachusetts also called on local campus administrators and law enforcement to exercise restraint in interfering with student demonstrations. 

For more information about the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Free Expression Project, go to: