Critics of Dartmouth Theme Party Demand Sanctions

August 21, 2013

On July 26, Dartmouth College’s Tri Delta sorority and Alpha Delta fraternity co-hosted a “Crips and Bloods” themed party that was subsequently criticized by several other Dartmouth student groups for allegedly developing into a night of racial stereotyping and insensitivity. Both Tri Delta and Alpha Delta apologized for the decision to host the event and acknowledged that the theme was “objectively offensive,” but many students are nevertheless asking school administrators to punish the hosts and create restrictions on future party themes.

The Dartmouth Office of Public Affairs has stated that “Dartmouth is continuing to gather information about the …  event and will … determine whether any violations of College policy have occurred.” Additionally, Campus Reform reported yesterday that “Dartmouth College student groups[] and administrators are working to implement policies that will prevent students from throwing parties with offensive themes.” It is unclear whether these policies are being initiated by the Greek system or by administrators and whether Dartmouth will officially sanction the hosting groups or prohibit similar themed parties in the future.

If the Dartmouth administration chooses to punish or prohibit “offensive” party themes, this response would be incompatible with Dartmouth’s explicitly stated commitment to free expression on campus. Students and student groups are certainly free to criticize the hosts and attendees of this party, and fraternities and sororities are welcome to solicit advice on treating race- and class-related issues with tact. But the college administration may not, consistent with freedom of speech, punish or prohibit expression because it is deemed to be offensive.

The Supreme Court explained this principle in Terminello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949):

[A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech, though not absolute … is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment …. [Citation omitted.]

Another point warrants clarification. Boston Globe coverage of the controversy reviews several instances of fraternities and sororities engaging in dangerous and illegal conduct without distinguishing between those incidents and this party, which is being criticized merely for attendees’ dress and language. This recap of “bad behavior from fraternities and sororities” came after a statement that “the student-run Greek Leadership Council was discussing adoption of a new policy for themed parties that ‘better reflects the Greek community’s commitment to hosting inclusive events.’” Again, groups like Tri Delta and Alpha Delta are free to voluntarily accept limitations on their speech and conduct, whether the impetus for such action is illegal activity or protected speech, but universities must not treat these circumstances similarly.

FIRE will watch closely to see whether Dartmouth yields to demands that it punish the party hosts and restrict party themes in the future, or whether it will abide by its promises to protect free expression on campus. We’ll provide Torch readers with any further updates.