Dartmouth: The Spin Unravels

By on April 22, 2005

One of the cornerstones of Dartmouth’s campaign to prove that it does
not have a speech code is the assertion that its 2001 punishment of the Zeta
Psi fraternity was based on conduct, not speech. In a recent speech to the
Dartmouth Club of New York, President Wright said:

The Dean derecognized the
fraternity because of the repeated publication of a newsletter that cruelly
demeaned specific women on campus. This incident was about behavior, not speech—the
organization published articles describing the supposed sexual exploits of two
undergraduate women who were identified by name.

Putting aside, for a moment, the obvious point that
publishing articles is an expressive act, it is important to look at the actual
grounds for punishing Zeta Psi. As I pointed out
, the principal speech-related charge against Zeta Psi was “harassment.”
Zeta Psi’s private, satirical newsletters, however, could not constitute
harassment under any applicable law. Dean Larrimore’s May 11, 2001, letter also mentions
violations of “Minimum Standards requirements.” These “Minimum Standards”
references were vague, and I was unable to determine which provisions of the
Dartmouth codes of conduct he was referring to—at least until I began
researching Internet archives. After searching in vain through the Dartmouth’s archives for a detailed
discussion of the charges, I came across a fascinating article
in the Dartmouth Review by Emmett Hogan (full disclosure: after Emmett
left Dartmouth, he became a FIRE program officer; he is now a law student at
Michigan). Entitled “Dean Redman Commits Fraud,” the article eviscerates the
college’s position. Money quotes:

Nulla poena sine lege—‘no
punishment without a law’. This seemingly self-evident dictum constitutes a
crucial cornerstone of the American justice system. It is the motivating force
behind our constitutional protection against ex post facto laws. It enshrines
an expansive view of human liberties; if you want to punish something, you have
to pass a law against it. If there is no law, there is no crime, and the action
is permissible.

How did the College, and Dean
Redman in particular, do this? Let’s examine the charges, of which there were
three: one violation of a Dartmouth Standard of Conduct—harassment, to be
precise—and two violations of the house’s own local and national charters. I
will begin with the charge of violating one of the Standards of Conduct.

Zeta Psi was alleged to have
violated Standard II, which reads: ‘Students and student organizations must not
engage in behavior that threatens the safety, security, or functioning of the
College, the safety and security of its members, or the safety and security of
others.’ Harassment is listed as one type of behavior that constitutes a
violation of this Standard. It is defined as ‘abusive behavior or conduct that
is targeted at an individual or group and is ordinarily repeated’.

A comparison with New Hampshire’s laws against harassment is
illustrative. Section 644:4 of the state’s criminal code has a detailed definition
of harassment, that specifically indicates the many ways it can occur—in
person, over the phone, through e-mail, and so on. But a crucial defining idea
is ‘communication’. To constitute harassment in the state of New Hampshire, an action must be communicated
to the victim. This makes sense; consequently, gossip cannot be defined as

Similarly, with Dartmouth’s own regulations, the behavior has
to be ‘targeted at an individual or group’. Simply talking about someone, even
repeatedly, or even printing it, does not constitute harassment—any reasonable
person would concede this. So what does ‘targeted’ mean? This means that, as
with New Hampshire
law, the action has to be directed at—in other words, communicated to—the
victim. And, because harassment is listed as an example of conduct that
violates Standard II, it must reasonably threaten the ‘safety and security’ of
College students—the crux of the Standard.

Melissa Heaton claims victim
status. She was gossiped about; she was insulted. But she was not harassed. The
contents of the Sigma Report were for internal consumption only. The comments
were never directed at her, and the only way she was able to discover the
content of these papers was by digging through a dumpster and piecing a copy
together. Clearly, the Sigma Report was not communicating with her. The
brothers of Zeta Psi talked about Melissa Heaton, but they did not target their
actions at her. Her ‘safety and security’ were not threatened. Clearly, she was
not harassed.

Dean Redman invented a charge of
harassment. His argument is, essentially, that a person can be harassed without
knowing it (thank goodness we have Dean Redman to inform us when we’ve been
harassed!) and without having his or her safety threatened. This contradicts
not only common sense; it contradicts the standards listed in the Student
Handbook itself. For this reason, he has committed fraud.

Perhaps one of the most abominable
actions taken by Dean Redman was his punishment of Zeta Psi for two violations
of local and national charters. He claims that violating charter regulations is
a violation of Minimum Standards. How is this the case?

Dean Redman argued to me, in
person, that he was able to punish Psi Upsilon for violating the Principle of
Community. Yes, that selfsame Principle of Community that the Student Handbook
notes ‘in itself is not adjudicable’. The vehicle for this was a requirement of
the Minimum Standards that says fraternities and sororities are obliged to
incorporate the spirit of the Principle of Community into their charters. Thus,
Dean Redman claimed the ability to punish them for violating the spirit
Principle of Community. In essence, he is punishing them on the basis of a
speech code that applies to 40% of the College’s undergraduate population, but
not to the other 60%. If these students were not Greeks, their speech would not
be punishable (ignoring, for the moment, Redman’s asinine views on harassment).

Here we have another violation of
College regulations. Since the Student Handbook is the main contract that
governs the relationship between the student body and the College, it
explicitly notes that the Principle of Community is not adjudicable. Does it
make sense that the College can grant us a right—a legal right—and then repudiate
that right via other rules? The two cannot co-exist; and because we have
contractual protection from adjudication of the Principle of Community, in name
or in spirit, the Minimum Standards requirement represents an infringement of
that contractual protection. The College, as a liberal arts institution, should
not be able to enforce the Principle of Community on a select segment of the
student population. But more to the point: they also cannot. That is fraud.

But Dean Redman has another
argument. The Principle of Community aside, he claims to have the authority to
punish any violation at any level, even if it is a violation of a fraternity’s
national charter. He claims to able to do this because of the little-noted
Standard VII of the Standards of Conduct. That Standard reads, specifically: ‘students
and student organizations must abide by College policies, rules, and
regulations.’ Fair enough, one would say; we should certainly be required to
abide by College policies. This should almost go without saying.

In personal communication, he
argued that Standard VII gives him the right to punish students and
organizations for any violation of any College or College-related policy or
regulation, at any level. But nowhere in that Standard is Dean Redman given authority
to punish offenses that do not relate to the Standards of Conduct. The Standard
says that we should abide by all College policies. But it does not give Dean
Redman himself jurisdiction over all such violations (as he claims), and it
does not give him the authority to punish violations that do not come from the
College—as is the case with violations of national charters.

The events are now clear. A
fraternity did something silly and tasteless and offended a significant (and
powerful) segment of the campus community. Dartmouth
found a way to punish that fraternity despite the fact that no pre-existing
rule or code prohibited the fraternity’s actions, and then President Wright and
Dean Larrimore drafted the letters that form the basis of the modern Dartmouth speech code as a
warning against future offenders.

If Dartmouth
respects free speech, it will not only repeal its speech code, but it will also
re-recognize Zeta Psi. Four years of punishment in the absence of any
violation of campus rules or regulations is enough.

Schools: Dartmouth College