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Dartmouth College: A ‘Green Light’ Institution?

Once again, free speech issues are at the forefront at Dartmouth College thanks to an alumni trustee election. For those outside of the Dartmouth community who may not know, elections for Dartmouth’s Board of Trustees include a process whereby Dartmouth alumni vote on candidates for the Board. This process has resulted in the election of three “alumni trustee” candidates in recent years: Dartmouth alums T.J. Rodgers, Peter Robinson, and Todd Zywicki. All three of these individuals ran for office in part on a platform of restoring freedom of speech to Dartmouth’s campus.
Another election is now underway, and Stephen Smith, a Dartmouth alum and University of Virginia law professor, is running for an alumni trustee position. Like the three who went before him, Smith has also emphasized freedom of speech as a top issue in his campaign. However, controversy has erupted over whether or not free speech on campus is even an issue at Dartmouth anymore—and FIRE is right in the middle of it.
In 2005, FIRE gave Dartmouth a “green light” rating—our best—on Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource, FIRE’s catalog of speech codes at over 350 colleges and universities across America. By giving Dartmouth’s policies “green light” status, FIRE certified that the college did not have active policies or statements that would impair freedom of speech on its campus. As we say in our ratings explanations, “[a] green light does not indicate that a school actively supports free expression. It simply means that FIRE is not currently aware of any serious threats to students’ free speech rights in the policies on that campus.”
This “green light” rating did not come about accidentally. In 2001, the brothers of Zeta Psi, a fraternity then on Dartmouth’s campus, printed a newsletter that insulted specific female Dartmouth students. Copies of the newsletter were retrieved from the fraternity’s house and out of a trash can and were brought to the attention of the campus at large, leading to an uproar. In response to this instance of what Dartmouth called “harassment” (a truly gratuitous stretch of the term), the college banned Zeta Psi from campus. To explain this action, Dartmouth President James Wright and then-Dean of the College James Larimore wrote a pair of letters to the campus community that between them, in FIRE’s opinion, constituted a “red light” speech code for the college, since the reasoning in them had been used to punish Zeta Psi and they were published on the college website for all students to read. Neither FIRE nor Dartmouth would budge on the issue.
It was T.J. Rodgers, then newly elected to Dartmouth’s board, who in 2004 began to break the logjam. FIRE’s press release from May 2005 explains how it happened, but to make a long story short, his inquires to both Dartmouth and FIRE led FIRE to write to Dartmouth in April 2005 to ask whether the 2001 letters still represented college policy. In May 2005, FIRE received a reply from Dartmouth’s general counsel saying that the letters were not policy and could not “be relied upon to support a complaint based on the content or viewpoint of controversial speech.” With this confirmation in hand, and with the offending letters removed from the college website, FIRE reevaluated Dartmouth’s policies and issued the college a “green light.”
Unfortunately, though, FIRE’s “green light” rating, while it accurately reflects Dartmouth’s written policies, is not a tool that is designed to tell the whole story about the environment for free speech on Dartmouth’s campus. For example, Zeta Psi remained banned from campus under the logic contained in those two, now rescinded, letters. FIRE noted as much in its 2005 press release, saying, “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.”
The fact is that as long as Zeta Psi is banned from campus (the ban is now due to expire in 2009) and as long as the Dartmouth administration defends that suspension for offensive expression as being a legitimate punishment, this old fight is not really over. After all, according to The Dartmouth (May 10, 2005), “[b]oth Wright and Larimore still stand behind their statements regarding the actions of Zete brothers in their letters supporting Zete’s derecognition after derogatory and allegedly defamatory remarks appeared in that fraternity’s newsletter.” While the letters they wrote may no longer represent Dartmouth policy, the sentiment behind them seems to remain.
From the incident last year in which students burned copies of The Dartmouth, to the suspicious apologies made by the crew team after having a “Cowboys and Indians” party that some found offensive, FIRE has maintained a watch on speech-related issues at Dartmouth and continued to bring them to public attention. Indeed, a look at FIRE’s Spotlight page on Dartmouth reveals not only the speech code rating but more than a dozen blog entries on various speech-related controversies at Dartmouth since FIRE changed its rating of the college in May 2005 (scroll down towards the bottom). FIRE will continue to monitor the campus so as long as questions remain about Dartmouth’s commitment to free speech—both through its administrative policies and practices and through what it is teaching its students about how to live in a free society.
Recently, Dartmouth administrators, including Acting Dean of the College Dan Nelson, have spoken of Dartmouth’s “deep and longstanding commitment to free speech,” and have explicitly cited FIRE’s “green light” rating as proof that Dartmouth’s policies are sound. This is as it should be—we want more universities to strive for better codes and policies. But Dartmouth cannot legitimately treat FIRE’s “green light” rating as a blanket endorsement of its attitudes, history, and all of its current practices regarding free speech. We have seen enough problems at Dartmouth in the past year to give us pause about the environment for free expression there, and while we again applaud Dartmouth’s willingness to reform its code, those who discuss FIRE’s “green light” rating of Dartmouth should take care not to treat it as being a broader approval than it actually is.

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