The Dartmouth Free Speech Mystery

By on March 28, 2005

What has happened to the Dartmouth College speech code? Over the past academic year, we have received word from several sources that President James Wright has been declaring that Dartmouth does not have speech-restrictive policies and that it is dedicated to freedom of expression. For example, during his 2004 convocation address, President Wright stated: “[There are] two values central to our academic purpose: our commitment to freedom of expression and our obligation to foster here a true inclusive community…. [The] corollary of freedom of speech is the freedom to criticize that which is said. And sometimes this freedom to disagree becomes an obligation…. Academic communities at their best are places that challenge more than they reinforce.”

These are promising words, certainly, and on February 7, 2005, Dartmouth trustee T.J. Rodgers wrote FIRE a letter and asked FIRE to “review and upgrade” Dartmouth’s free speech rating. Upon receipt of Mr. Rodgers’ letter, we did in fact review Dartmouth’s speech policies and found that they had not been changed since May 10, 2001, when President James Wright issued a letter (PDF) to the Dartmouth community in which he made the following statements:

After the Trustee announcement, I met with the presidents of the CFS organizations and told them that the administration would work with their organizations in meeting these new challenges. In return, we expected each of them to contribute to the community, to be supportive of our educational mission and our community values. 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.

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.

Because Dartmouth’s policies were unchanged, FIRE responded to Mr. Rodgers with a letter (copied to President Wright) dated February 28, 2005, in which we refused to upgrade Dartmouth’s rating. We stated:

While President Wright’s [convocation] remarks were a positive step, our own investigation of Dartmouth documents and practices reveals two problematic items. First, it appears that President Wright’s May 10, 2001, letter to the Dartmouth community, which substantially restricts free speech, is still in force. Second, our best information indicates that the college continues to take action against the Zeta Psi fraternity, which was punished in 2001 as a result of speech-related activities. For FIRE to upgrade Dartmouth’s speech rating, the college must clearly state that President Wright’s May 10, 2001, letter is no longer an expression of school policy. FIRE also requests that Dartmouth rescind any speech-related punishment administered under the terms of that letter.

The news that Zeta Psi faces continued sanctions was particularly discouraging:

In a February 2, 2005, e-mail to Zeta Psi officials, Ellen Arnold from the College Counsel’s office stated, “As you know, the College rules prohibit active Dartmouth students from living in a fraternity that is not recognized by the College. As a result, the College would object to and may seek to sanction active Dartmouth students living at Zeta Psi.” This threat to sanction Dartmouth students living in Zeta Psi’s house leaves the fraternity’s house unusable (town regulations prohibit use of the building for anything other than rental to fraternity members or undergraduate students). It is distressing that this fraternity still suffers from the effects of the college’s speech policies, and that action was taken as recently as this month to further harm the fraternity.

FIRE’s letter was written in the midst of a heated trustee race in which free speech at Dartmouth has become a central issue. Interestingly, within days after FIRE’s letter was sent, Dartmouth removed President Wright’s speech-restrictive May 10, 2001, letter from its website. The letter’s old URL directs readers to a “This Page Has Moved” message. The message states:

The page you requested has been moved to a new location. This may be a result of the reorganization of this Web site which improved the navigation and usability of the site. Although some pages were moved to new locations, no content was deleted.

Thus, we now face a free speech mystery. Does President Wright’s May 10, 2001, letter still represent university policy? Has it been removed only during the trustee race to take an issue from free speech candidates Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki? If the speech code has been repealed, will the college relent in its campaign to punish Zeta Psi? FIRE will be writing a letter to President Wright asking all of these questions.

Stay tuned.

Schools: Dartmouth College