Encouraging news emerged from Hanover, New Hampshire on Wednesday when Dartmouth College announced
that it plans to reinstate the Zeta Psi fraternity on its campus in 2009, thereby undoing the harsh lifetime ban against the fraternity issued in 2001. This reversal brings some level of justice to the members of Zeta Psi, but it is also lamentable that, once the suspension ends in 2009, the fraternity will have been deprived of official recognition for eight years despite the fact that its members did not break a single campus rule or regulation.
The fraternity became a lightning rod for controversy when it printed two satirical newsletters in 2001 that lampooned the sexual exploits of its members and mentioned by name several other female students. Zeta Psi took steps to make sure that the joking flier was viewed only by members of the fraternity, but became public when a female student took a copy from the fraternity house and combed through the trash for another.
The content of the newsletter may have been tasteless and offensive, but it clearly would constitute protected speech at a public college, and should be no less protected at a private college that claims to prize freedom of speech. To get around this stubborn little fact, Dartmouth officials, after taking two weeks to explain their rationale for disciplining the organization at all, finally settled on one charge of harassment. In reality, the actions of Zeta Psi fell short of Dartmouth’s definition of harassment at the time. FIRE became involved in the case and protested the university’s treatment of Zeta Psi.
The revised punishment of Zeta Psi is still not ideal. A three year “dark period” now awaits the fraternity before its licensure. Also, some students understandably have qualms with effectively punishing current students for the behavior of predecessors who graduated years ago. Finally, it is puzzling why Dartmouth reevaluated the fraternity’s punishment now, and not back in 2005, when it (rightfully) clarified its stance on free expression
by removing from its web sites two documents, issued in the aftermath of the Zeta Psi scandal, that prioritized the “feelings of others” over the right to free expression on campus.
All that said, Dartmouth does deserve credit for reversing course and reviewing past policy decisions. Dartmouth appears to be taking steps to remake itself as a committed defender of free expression in higher education. Colleges, take note: It’s never too late to change your mind.