HANOVER, N.H., May 9, 2005—In a remarkable development for liberty on campus, Dartmouth College has issued a clear and unambiguous statement in favor of free speech. The statement ends what Dartmouth called “confusion” about the college’s policies by removing from its website documents containing language that earned the college a poor, “red” rating on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE’s) speechcodes.org database. This action follows a series of communications between FIRE and Dartmouth.
“FIRE no longer considers Dartmouth to have a speech code. Moreover, Dartmouth is clearly positioning itself as a national leader in the battle for free expression on campus,” remarked David French, FIRE’s president. “Although the situation at Dartmouth is not perfect, by removing from its website the documents that contained speech-restrictive statements and by confirming that those statements do not represent college policy, Dartmouth has taken an enormous step forward.”
Administrators issued the troubling documents during May 2001, in the wake of a controversy over an internal fraternity newsletter that personally insulted some female students. After the newsletter’s contents were made public, Dartmouth President James Wright issued a letter endorsing the college’s decision to permanently derecognize the fraternity. Wright’s letter stated, “[I]t 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.” Dean of Dartmouth College James Larimore issued a letter on the following day expressing a similar sentiment. Both statements seemed to many to be inconsistent with the college’s traditional policies supporting freedom of expression and dissent, which promise that Dartmouth “prizes and defends the right of free speech.”
“Because the statements elevated ‘feelings’ over free expression, because they were used to justify the speech-related punishment of a Dartmouth fraternity, and because they were maintained on the university website as if they constituted policy statements, FIRE concluded that the statements were effectively a speech code,” explained FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “For these reasons, Dartmouth received a negative rating in FIRE’s database of speech polices, speechcodes.org.”
In the last academic year, Dartmouth trustee T.J. Rodgers raised concerns with Dartmouth and with FIRE regarding Dartmouth’s poor free speech rating. Then, in September 2004, President Wright strongly endorsed free speech on campus in his convocation address. Rodgers subsequently wrote to FIRE to request that FIRE upgrade Dartmouth’s red-light speech code rating on its speechcodes.org website. FIRE President David French declined to do so, citing the May 2001 letters from Wright and Larimore that were still posted on Dartmouth’s website. Shortly thereafter, FIRE noticed that the letters from Wright and Larimore had been removed from the website. FIRE then wrote President Wright on April 19 to ask for confirmation on whether or not the 2001 letters represented “binding statements of college policy.”
On May 2, 2005, Dartmouth General Counsel Robert B. Donin replied to FIRE, confirming that the statements of President Wright and Dean Larimore could not “be relied upon to support a complaint based on the content or viewpoint of controversial speech.” Donin also explained that his own recent guest column in the college newspaper, as well as President Wright’s September 2004 convocation address, “reaffirm the College’s longstanding commitment to the values of respect for others and the free exchange of ideas.” Further, Donin noted that “the decision…to remove the two letters from the College’s web site was taken to end confusion about their role.”
“Dartmouth’s speech policies, along with those of the University of Pennsylvania, now lead the Ivy League in respecting individual liberty and free expression,” remarked FIRE’s French. “FIRE still has concerns regarding past punishments, but we are hopeful that—going forward— Dartmouth students will enjoy the full range of First Amendment freedoms. Dartmouth’s administration should be commended for this bold and important step.” Concluded French: “FIRE looks forward to the day when the entire Ivy League joins this trend and recognizes that administrators may advocate for decency without mandating that students censor, under threat of punishment, their own speech for fear of transgressing someone else’s notion of the good society.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
William Walker, Vice President for Public Affairs, Dartmouth College: 603-646-3661; firstname.lastname@example.org