In the last twelve months, New York’s Hamilton College has not exactly covered itself in glory. First, it made national news after it hired Susan Rosenberg, a convicted terrorist, to teach a course entitled “Resistance Memoirs: Writing, Identity, and Change.” Then it became the epicenter of the Ward Churchill controversy when his speech at the college was first scheduled then canceled after the college became concerned about alleged “threats.” To those on the right, Hamilton (particularly its Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society, and Culture, the campus entity responsible for hiring Rosenberg and initially inviting Churchill) has become a poster child for the argument that campuses are hypocritical, repressive, and extremist. For many on the left, Hamilton’s reaction to the recent controversies, such as canceling Churchill’s speech and placing new restrictions on the Kirkland Center, are examples of cowardice and censorship. For FIRE, Hamilton betrayed civil liberties when it gave in to the “heckler’s veto” by barring Churchill from campus, and it has long violated the academic freedom rights of its students with its speech code.
Now there is evidence that some alumni are fighting back. Like Dartmouth, Hamilton has a mechanism for open trustee elections, and, for the first time in many years, those elections are contested. Several alumni have formed a group called Hamilton College Alumni for Governance Reform and have put forward three candidates who hope to “restore Hamilton’s reputation and credibility as one of the premier liberal arts institutions in the world.”
Unfortunately (but, given Hamilton’s history, unsurprisingly), the dissident candidates face severe free speech restrictions on their campaigns. The candidates are limited to a single 100-word statement of candidacy to be mailed to alumni, and that statement “may not include any contact information or references to specific hard copy or online resource material.” In other words, candidates have 100 words in which to make their case and cannot refer alumni to a website. Further, candidates may not even be permitted to use email for campaign purposes. How can a candidate run an effective campaign offering a comprehensive critique of the status quo in 100 words? How can they get their message to the voting alumni without references to additional materials or e-mails? More importantly, how are such draconian free speech restrictions at all consistent with representative democracy and academic freedom?
While open trustee elections are a credit to Hamilton College, the college should immediately lift its free speech restrictions and permit a real debate and a real choice for its alumni.