Important Developments at Dartmouth

By on March 7, 2005

As I noted in an earlier post, Dartmouth alums are now using the college’s open trustee election system to run on a free speech platform. One of the issues in the race is Dartmouth’s current red rating on FIRE’s site, Dartmouth trustee (and free speech advocate) T.J. Rodgers asked us to evaluate our ratings in light of the President James Wright’s recent convocation remarks in which he told Dartmouth’s incoming freshman that the college did not have a speech code.

After reviewing the available information (including President Wright’s recent remarks), we concluded that we could not upgrade Dartmouth’s rating. As of February 28, 2005 (the date of our letter), President Wright had not revoked or rescinded a letter he wrote on May 10, 2001. This letter was written in response to an incident where the Zeta Psi fraternity was derecognized after a woman went through the fraternity’s trash and pieced together a torn-up internal newsletter that contained “offensive” comments. In justifying the punishment, President Wright clearly indicated that, at Dartmouth, free speech rights were subordinate to the “feelings” of fellow students:

In a community such as ours, one that depends so much upon mutual trust and respect, it is hard to understand why some want still to insist that their “right” to do what they want trumps the rights, feelings, and considerations of others. We need to recognize that speech has consequences for which we must account.

Additionally, President Wright stated that Dartmouth would not permit “bigotry” or “demeaning” behavior:

Specifically, I said that I expected them to take action to address allegations of conduct that was demeaning to women and others, that was racist, or that was homophobic. As a community committed to fairness, respect, and openness, we have no patience with or tolerance for bigotry or demeaning behavior. I affirm here, with deep personal conviction, that Dartmouth is and will be an actively anti-sexist, anti-racist, and anti-homophobic institution and community.

As numerous courts have held, a public university cannot condition free speech rights on listener reaction, nor can it prohibit subjectively defined “bigotry.” “If 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, 414 (1989). For an outstanding judicial opinion that discusses these concepts in detail, see Judge John E. Jones III’s order enjoining the enforcement of Shippensburg University’s “Racism and Cultural Diversity Policy Statement”—a speech code similar to Dartmouth’s. Dartmouth is, of course, private and therefore not subject to First Amendment restrictions, but FIRE believes our great liberal arts colleges should be at least as free as the public schools.

Interestingly, it appears that Dartmouth has now removed President Wright’s speech-restrictive letter from its website. As of February 28, 2005, the letter could be found here. Could it be that Dartmouth is taking concrete steps to repeal its speech code? FIRE is asking Dartmouth to state clearly whether President Wright’s May 10, 2001, letter represents campus policy, and it is asking Dartmouth to rescind any punishments imposed under that letter.

Today, T. J. Rodgers writes in The Dartmouth that while he is “encouraged” by President Wright’s recent remarks regarding free speech at Dartmouth, “it remains to be seen” whether the college will actually change its policies. Also, Rodgers notes that these policies have had considerable teeth in the past:

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 to give the appearance of fairness, everyone knew who the target was.

Given President Wright’s recent remarks, the apparent removal of his May 10, 2001, letter from the website, and now T. J. Rodgers’ clear call for free speech at Dartmouth, it appears that the college may be slowly but surely rejecting speech codes and embracing the free marketplace of ideas. There is much work left to be done, however. It is therefore critically important that T. J. Rodgers be joined by more trustees who value free speech. Dartmouth alums, elect Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki to the board!

Schools: Dartmouth College