Defending Speech Codes?

By March 24, 2005

A group calling itself Alumni for a Strong Dartmouth has mobilized against free-speech trustee candidates Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki. In a curious entry on its site, Alumni for a Strong Dartmouth challenges FIRE’s contention that Dartmouth has a speech code. The group states:

Robinson does not mention FIRE’s position on free speech in higher education, which is that when First Amendment rights conflict with respect for a sense of community at a college or university (i.e. in the case of racist or other offensive speech), First Amendment rights should prevail. This merits debate and should certainly not be taken at face value.

In any case, FIRE is clear in stating, “Most colleges and universities are red light institutions,” (i.e. their worst of three rankings). On the basis of this specific criteria, FIRE rates seven of the top 10 institutions in Dartmouth’s peer group in “America’s Best Colleges 2005” as “red light” institutions.

In the first paragraph, the group seems to be (backhandedly) defending the merits of speech codes. Alumni for a Strong Dartmouth, however, does not (and cannot) challenge that the First Amendment prohibits the suppression of “offensive” speech. In fact, “[i]f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989). Instead, the argument has to be that Dartmouth, as a private school, should restrict speech more than government schools because it should value “a sense of community” over the free exchange of ideas.

Any group that would state such a position cannot credibly claim to support or respect free speech. At FIRE, we have learned that concepts like “civility” or a “sense of community” have led to the censorship of the following forms of “offensive” expression: the display of American flags, the display of posters supporting American soldiers, speech criticizing American military efforts, peace protests, parodies and political cartoons, flyers advertising speeches by black conservatives, affirmative action protests, worship services and religious association, critiques of administration policy—the list could go on and on (see FIRE’s case archive). In fact, in an environment that prohibits “offensive” expression, the only speech that is sure to be free from punishment is speech that agrees with the enforcing entity.

Additionally, because “civility” and “respect for community” are inherently subjective concepts, FIRE finds that campus majorities often believe that even aggressive speech against disfavored minorities is tolerant while the mildest counter-protest is somehow “uncivil.” For example, at UMass Amherst, the administration said nothing when one of its students was publicly and repeatedly accused of “racism” for opposing a proposed mandatory racial set-aside program in student government (a program that the university’s own general counsel later said was unconstitutional) but then threatened that student (and several of his friends) with “criminal harassment” for a cartoon drawing—made during a private party—that mocked the racism allegations. In the logic of the modern university, public accusations of racism are perfectly civil but private expressions of dissent at that characterization are not.

In the second paragraph, Alumni for a Strong Dartmouth seems to be taking comfort in the fact that most of its peer schools also have restrictive speech policies. This is a strange position. Students at Dartmouth have fewer free speech rights than students at a local community college, and this group is pleased that other colleges are just as restrictive? Is that even an argument? Dartmouth has an opportunity to become a leader in restoring free speech and academic freedom to our modern university culture, and Alumni for a Strong Dartmouth says, “No thank you. We would like to follow the oppressive norms of our peer group.” As the credibility of the modern academy is endangered by its own repression and hypocrisy, the message of Alumni for a Strong Dartmouth is simple: follow the herd, and stay the course.

Schools: Dartmouth College University of Massachusetts – Amherst