It seems the more we know, the less we understand when it comes to Dartmouth’s last-minute decision to cancel an in-person event featuring conservative journalist Andy Ngo, forcing organizers to conduct the event from an empty lecture hall via Zoom.
Dartmouth’s response to FIRE’s March 7 letter brings little clarification to a saga that has been ongoing since January, when the college gave three student groups, who organized an event featuring Ngo and activist Gabriel Nadales, a choice: Hold their event online or not at all. In subsequent statements, Dartmouth administrators cited “concerning information” brought to their attention by the Hanover police as the rationale for their demand, but results of FIRE’s public records requests and correspondence with the Hanover Police Department cast doubt on this assertion.
Now, despite the fact that few protestors and no threats to the event actually materialized, Dartmouth is doubling down on its dubious defense, telling FIRE in a March 23 letter that the Hanover Police Department relayed to the college that “the information they received . . . was credible and caused them concern for the safety of those on campus.”
“We take seriously any information about threats to our community that [the Hanover police] bring forward to us,” the response states.
We too, take the Hanover Police Department seriously — so when Chief Charlie Dennis told us in February that the police “did not make a recommendation to Dartmouth regarding the January 20th event” and “were not provided a reason . . . for Dartmouth’s decision to cancel the event,” we believe him.
Furthermore, we believe the records of police communications to university administrators, which describe “posts about mythological Antifa supersoldiers, opposition to Ngo’s views, and some discussion of violence, but no explicit threats of harm to Ngo or students.” This paints the picture that Dartmouth acted in response not to threats to student safety, but to threats to disrupt the event — empowering would-be disruptors everywhere. This constitutes a heckler’s veto, in which mere threats of disruption result in limitations placed on someone’s ability to speak.
Despite running with the “safety” rationalization, Dartmouth’s response (a Word doc aptly labeled “v2” when shared with FIRE), revises its initial claim, which only mentioned safety concerns as the reasoning for cancellation, adding the confusing detail that lack of student staffing, also, prevented the event from occurring.
Dartmouth claims it asked the College Republicans to provide nine student-staffers, discussing with them “the expectation . . . that this was necessary to manage the event.” The College Republicans could provide only four, however. According to Dartmouth, that number was deemed insufficient based on the college’s past experience with “similar” events such as “the Polar Bear Swim during Winter Carnival, Programming Board Green Key Concert, Powwow, and Greek concerts/events with alcohol.”
This begs the question, how is a talk similar to an event where 1,200 people jump into an icy pond, an open-air concert with amplified sound in the center of campus, or a party with alcohol? Far from what’s required to host a Broadway-style play or a Burning Man-esque music festival, the Andy Ngo and Gabriel Nadales talk likely required little more than a microphone and some folding chairs.
Not to mention, student organizers claim Dartmouth’s initial requests for a specific number of event staffers were framed as “suggestions,” that, as the event got closer, Dartmouth increased the number of volunteers required (“First seven and then nine.”), and that even in light of changing demands, the College Republicans had “12 students ready to go” before the event started. “[T]he Administrators didn’t seem to care when I told them that we were overstaffed,” said one student organizer.
Dartmouth has the obligation to prove that its restrictions on the event were the least restrictive means to address legitimate safety concerns.
Dartmouth’s actions implicate the speech rights of the student groups who organized the event.
The fact that Dartmouth can’t adequately compare the speech restrictions — in the form of staffing requirements — imposed on the student organizers of the Andy Ngo event with requirements imposed on similar groups suggests that the requirements were not viewpoint-neutral. Furthermore, regardless of whether the group could provide the number of staffers requested, Dartmouth’s use of “potential disruptions” as a basis for determining how many staffers to require is concerning.
Setting event-staffing standards based on how disruptive protesters might be unfairly places the onus on event organizers to cater to those who would disrupt speech. Furthermore, it incentivizes those who do not like the message of a particular talk or presentation to threaten disruption, thereby making it more likely that obstacles to a successful event become insurmountable, effectively forcing cancellation.
Based on the information we’ve seen so far, the responsibility for enabling the Andy Ngo event to proceed as planned — and for unjustly canceling the event — rests not with the Hanover police or with the student event organizers, but squarely with Dartmouth.
Dartmouth has the obligation to prove that its restrictions on the event were the least restrictive means to address legitimate safety concerns. They can do so by being transparent about what the threats or risks were. So far, they haven't done so. Until they do, we remain skeptical.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).