Is Dartmouth Really Free?

By May 10, 2005

FIRE friend (and Dartmouth alum) Alston Ramsay has written in response to FIRE’s decision to upgrade Dartmouth’s rating on speechcodes.org:

I received your press release today regarding Dartmouth’s free speech upgrade, and I certainly agree there have been some positive shifts—particularly the most recent letter Robert Donin sent to FIRE. As a recent Dartmouth graduates, and former editor of The Dartmouth Review, I am very interested in this issue.

I am curious, however, if there have been any further exchanges regarding Dartmouth’s policy restricting campus publications from delivering to dormitories. FIRE had sent a letter to Dartmouth after the dean of residential life threatened to punish students caught delivering papers, and the response, from Robert Donin himself, equated student publications with “litter” in hallways. (FIRE’s letter: http://www.dartreview.com/archives/2003/10/23/fire_slams_dartmouth.php and Dartmouth’s response: http://www.dartreview.com/archives/2003/10/23/the_college_pules.php) I must confess I’ve been disappointed to see the delivery policy slip below radar screen—I was one of the students threatened—and I can’t, for the life of me, square that policy, which still exists and rears its head every few months, with the Wright administration’s Road to Damascus about-face on free speech, which you have now sanctified. It seems, further, that the Zeta Psi fraternity, which was banned from campus for an internal off-color newsletter, as well as Psi Upsilon fraternity, whose entire brotherhood was banned from holding public parties for months on end because a few brothers chanted a distasteful old cheer late at night, both represent infringements upon free speech for which Dartmouth has in no way, shape, or form atoned. And I think a close reading of Donin’s recent op-ed in daily paper, The Dartmouth, splits hairs in such a way that one could certainly read into his words, as with the Wright and Larimore letters, a de factospeech code that somehow defines speech and actions as different. That is, speech is not punishable, but the action of asserting your speech is. (For a wholesale destruction of that op-ed, I point you to this thread, where Emmett Hogan, a former employee of FIRE, explodes it point-by-point: http://www.dartlog.net/2005/04/spin-city.php.)

I can see how Dartmouth’s recent public statements look good on the surface—and could bode well for higher education in general—but I fear that this green light will give Dartmouth a green light to continue ill-conceived policies like the delivery one, and it gives the administration cover for past actions that were, without a doubt, attacks on free speech. Ignoring, for the moment, that restrictive policies still exist, should there not be any acceptance of responsibility or acknowledgment of wrongdoing in the past? Until Dartmouth comes clean and admits it was wrong in punishing students the way it has on numerous occasions in the last few years, I don’t see how anyone is supposed to know what is or is not protected speech. And that, of course, is the crux of speech codes at Dartmouth.

Alston’s concerns are also reflected by various comments on Dartlog, the Dartmouth Review’s excellent blog. I appreciate Alston’s questions (as well as the Dartlog comments) because they represent a deep commitment to free speech and they provide FIRE with an opportunity to fully articulate its position. Press releases are not the best instruments for conveying nuance and reservations.

First, to be clear, FIRE is not completely satisfied with the status quo at Dartmouth. Zeta Psi has not been re-recognized, and—as Alston notes—there may be some remaining questions regarding the newspaper distribution policy. FIRE has clearly communicated to the highest levels of the Dartmouth administration its desire to see Zeta Psi re-recognized, and it will continue to note Zeta Psi’s status on Dartmouth’s page on speechcodes.org. In other words, Dartmouth may be green, but while Zeta Psi remains derecognized, it is green with an “asterisk.”

In spite of that dissatisfaction, it is simply undeniable that Dartmouth has taken an enormously significant step. The offending letters are gone from the website, and the college’s general counsel has emphatically stated that they cannot be used to support any kind of speech-related complaint. As a result, one can scour Dartmouth’s website and policy manuals without finding any kind of speech code. To the contrary, Dartmouth’s statement of freedom of expression and dissent offers a relatively (though not perfectly) convincing declaration of support for student speech:

Dartmouth College prizes and defends the right of free speech, and the freedom of individuals to make independent decisions, while at the same time recognizing that such freedom exists in the context of law and of responsibility for one’s actions. The exercise of these rights must not deny the same rights to any other individual. The College therefore both fosters and protects the rights of individuals to express their dissent. Protest or demonstration shall not be discouraged so long as neither force nor the threat of force is used, and so long as the orderly processes of the College are not deliberately obstructed.

Given this policy reality, it would not be credible for FIRE to say that Dartmouth has a speech code. Speechcodes.org evaluates formal policies, not the free speech culture of the school (which is difficult to objectively define) or individual speech-restrictive actions (which are dealt with through FIRE’s complaint process).

It is now clear that free speech advocates have much more ammunition to use in arguments against Zeta Psi’s punishment, against any viewpoint-biased solicitation bans, or against any other arbitrary forms of censorship. With the speech code removed, such actions not only violate generally accepted principles of academic freedom; they also violate the college’s own articulated principles and policies.

Restoring the true marketplace of ideas—especially at a private institution like Dartmouth—is not a one-step process. Dartmouth has taken the first (important) step of what I believe will be many steps towards free speech. FIRE has acknowledged the significance of that step by accurately rating Dartmouth’s written policies while continuing to acknowledge the Zeta Psi’s inappropriate punishment. When Zeta Psi is re-recognized (and we will continue to argue for its recognition), we will drop the “asterisk” from Dartmouths’ speechcodes.org page.

FIRE recognizes that defending free speech involves much more than merely changing policies. The culture must change, and institutions must be held accountable for any violations of their written policies. In the coming days and weeks, there will be students (including, in all probability, the good folks at the Review) who will put Dartmouth’s public free speech commitments to the test. If Dartmouth should fail to abide by its commitments, FIRE will intervene.

The speech code is gone, but is Dartmouth really free? Only time will tell.

Schools: Dartmouth College