A Huge Victory for Free Speech at Dartmouth

By May 9, 2005

Over the last few months, FIRE has been heavily engaged in a dialogue with Dartmouth and with Dartmouth trustee T.J. Rodgers regarding the college’s onerous speech code. The speech code was an important issue in the recent trustee election and has been the subject of several entries in The Torch (see posts here, here, here, and here). Late last week, FIRE received a letter by Dartmouth General Counsel Robert Donin confirming that Dartmouth no longer has a speech code. The college has decided to end “confusion” about its free speech policies, reaffirm a commitment to free speech, and remove the speech code documents from its website. Donin also clearly stated that Dartmouth’s old speech code cannot “be relied upon to support a complaint based on the content or viewpoint of controversial speech.”

This is a tremendously important development in the battle for free speech on campus. The Dartmouth speech code fell not as a result of a court order but because individuals inside and outside the college (including trustee candidates Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki) understood that the speech code was fundamentally incompatible with the marketplace of ideas and with any reasonable conception of an effective liberal arts education. In other words, the code fell not because it was illegal (Dartmouth is, after all, a private school), but because of a consensus belief that the code was wrong.

It is critical that friends of liberty send a powerful, positive message in response to this action. Students should choose to attend those Ivy League schools (Penn and now Dartmouth) with no formal speech-restrictive policies, and they should tell the admissions offices of schools with speech codes (like Cornell, for example) that they will not consider an admissions offer so long as the school remains repressive. Speech codes have endured in large part because administrators believe that change will be costly in terms of campus protests, controversy, and faculty support. FIRE’s goal is to change the cost-benefit calculation so that it is no longer “safe” to placate campus censors. Speech codes have been enacted not in response to truly popular demand but often in response to energetic protests by loud activists (ironically using their own free speech rights to argue for censorship). Censorship can be confronted and decisively defeated not just in a court of law but also (and more importantly) in the court of public opinion.

There is one caveat to the Dartmouth victory: The Zeta Psi fraternity remains derecognized. It was Zeta Psi’s internal newsletter that led President Wright to write the May 10, 2001, letter that formed the basis of Dartmouth’s speech code. With the philosophical justification for the speech-related aspects of Zeta Psi’s punishment now removed from the college website, it would seem that re-recognition would be a logical next step. FIRE will stay on top of this issue.

So, what is Dartmouth’s new speech rating? Unfortunately, we are the midst of a major upgrade to our speechcodes.org site and cannot make any changes for the next few days. When the site is back “live,” Dartmouth will receive our best rating. We will, however, provide an asterisk noting that Zeta Psi remains derecognized.

With the formal speech code gone, it is now up to the Dartmouth community to foster a culture that respects free speech, free inquiry, and the rights of dissent. Cultures are more powerful than policies, and the day the campus culture changes (and not just at Dartmouth) is the day that we can truly declare victory.

Schools: Dartmouth College