Encouraged But Not Convinced

By on March 7, 2005

As part of the electioneering surrounding the current Trustee election, my views on free speech at Dartmouth have been quoted to support certain candidates and attack others. Politics aside, since one of the two promises I made during the 2004 Trustee election was to improve the climate of free speech on campus, I am very sensitive to that issue — especially when my position is misrepresented. To be clear: I believe there has been and continues to be a serious free speech problem at Dartmouth.

It is true that I have praised President Wright for his convocation speech on Sept. 21, 2004, in which he supported the principals of free speech on the Dartmouth campus, including the right to express minority views. On the basis of those remarks, I wrote a letter to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), asking them to upgrade Dartmouth’s current “red” (worst-case) status in their freedom-of-speech index. For your information, FIRE rates Penn “green” and Yale “yellow.”

While it is true we are making some progress in free speech at Dartmouth, I recently reviewed campaign commentaries from the Dartmouth Asia Pacific Alumni Association, Mary Conway, 1982 class president and Belinda Chiu ’98 of the Alumni Council, all of which completely misrepresent my position on free speech. I did not say, nor have I ever said, that Dartmouth does not have a speech code, or that “the College protects free speech,” as they said, with identical wording. Under precedents set by various cases before the Supreme Court, Dartmouth currently has imbedded in its own website a speech code that is clearly illegal under the First Amendment. If Dartmouth were not a private college not subject to the full rigor of the First Amendment, it would have already been sued by the ACLU or by FIRE for violating the First Amendment and it would already have lost the case. In statements currently on the Dartmouth website attributed to President Wright and to the office of Dean Larimore, Dartmouth students are warned that “speech has consequences for which we must account” and that behavior that does not meet standards “will be addressed in a prompt and serious manner.”

Although they are not labeled as such, these statements do legally constitute a speech code that violates the First Amendment. Furthermore, speech codes that are content-specific are unambiguously illegal. The Dartmouth speech code is even more egregious in that it does not clearly specify what constitutes punishable behavior, beyond generalities such as a lack of “respect,” “consideration” or “inclusivity” — or specify what penalties will be inflicted for speech code violations.

The arbitrariness of Dartmouth’s speech code is not hypothetical. It is well known that Zeta Psi fraternity was shut down — banned from the campus permanently — as a result of a series of infractions that culminated with a speech code violation in which a sophomoric sexploits letter was dug out of the Zeta Psi dumpster — on private property, without a warrant — and delivered to College authorities. To this day, Dartmouth continues to threaten Zeta Psi with “sanctions” if students live there. The zoning regulations prohibit any other property use, making Zeta Psi’s private property worthless. Thus, the Dartmouth speech code is not only arbitrarily defined, it has been used to justify draconian punishment.

The hostility at Dartmouth toward dissenting free speech shows up on the campus in other ways. Students who protested at a Howard Dean speech with a Confederate flag had their flag confiscated, even though Dean himself affirmed the right to protest. The Dartmouth Review, often critical of the administration, was banned from delivering newspapers to dormitories. Although the ban was applied equally give the appearance of fairness, everyone knew who the target was.

Harvey Silverglate, the co-founder of FIRE, said that his organization considers Dartmouth to be among the worst abusers of campus free speech because of the arbitrariness of speech rules and the severity with which they were inflicted. FIRE recently rejected my request to upgrade their rating.

While I am encouraged by President Wright’s public support for free speech in his convocation address, it remains to be seen whether Dartmouth will really stand behind his words and actually change the policies that have triggered punitive action in the past against individuals and organizations that simply exercised their right to free speech. I am flattered that Conway, Chiu and various alumni groups value my opinion on free speech enough to state my views, but I wish they would have contacted me before misrepresenting them.

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Schools: Dartmouth College