I recently wrote about the “Dartmouth Free Speech Mystery,” in which Dartmouth has apparently removed its speech code from its website but has not indicated whether the policy is simply being moved, as its site indicates, or has been formally retracted.
An article in today’s Dartmouth only deepens the mystery. Apparently, President Wright is making public statements supporting the Ford Foundation’s “Difficult Dialogues” initiatives, which is a $2.5 million academic freedom initiative designed to “help colleges and universities create a campus environment where sensitive subjects can be discussed in a spirit of open scholarly inquiry, intellectual rigor and with respect for different viewpoints.”
At the end of the Dartmouth article, Wright makes the following statements regarding his May 10, 2001, letter that is the heart of the Dartmouth speech code:
Wright, however, stands by the assertions in the letter, and did not relate them to his support of the Ford Foundation's new program. “I stand by the statements that this is a community where we value each member…free speech does not mean that you’re free from criticism for what it is that you said,” Wright maintained in an interview with The Dartmouth. “I'm not aware of anyone [here] that thinks they can’t speak freely.”
It is difficult to make sense of this statement. Wright’s May 10, 2001, letter does not simply state that the university values each member, nor does it state that “free speech does not mean you’re free from criticism.” Instead, it explicitly states:
After the Trustee announcement, I met with the presidents of the CFS organizations and told them that the administration would work with their organizations in meeting these new challenges. In return, we expected each of them to contribute to the community, to be supportive of our educational mission and our community values. Specifically, I said that I expected them to take action to address allegations of conduct that was demeaning to women and others, that was racist, or that was homophobic. As a community committed to fairness, respect, and openness, we have no patience with or tolerance for bigotry or demeaning behavior. I affirm here, with deep personal conviction, that Dartmouth is and will be an actively anti-sexist, anti-racist, and anti-homophobic institution and community.
In a community such as ours, one that depends so much upon mutual trust and respect, it 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.
No one can read this letter and believe that they have the right to “speak freely” on matters of race, gender, and sexuality. According to this letter, the right to speak on those subjects is limited by others’ “feeling” or “considerations” and cannot be “demeaning,” sexist, racist, or homophobic as those terms are subjectively defined by the administration. If such a policy were enacted in a public university, it would be blatantly unconstitutional.
Yet, if you read Wright’s quote carefully, it could be evidence that he is climbing down from the actual speech restrictions in the letter. He says: “I stand by the statements that this is a community where we value each member.” He is not quoted as standing by the entire letter. So, the question remains—what is the status of the missing speech code?