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Dartmouth Stands By Restrictive ‘Bias Incident Reporting’ Protocol, Loses FIRE’s ‘Green Light’ Rating

Note: This story concerns events that occurred between January 2013 and October 2015. It was scheduled to be posted several weeks ago, when we suddenly had to turn our attention to unfolding events at Yale University and the University of Missouri. Just as we were again ready to post it, controversy erupted at Dartmouth over a Black Lives Matter protest in the library that allegedly turned ugly, with some students alleging they were pushed and shoved by protesters. This entry has been updated in places to include information about the current controversy, as we would be remiss not to mention it when discussing free speech at Dartmouth. But the decision to change Dartmouth’s speech code rating, and the communications with Dartmouth officials that informed that decision, predates the current controversy.

After failing to heed several warnings from FIRE that its “Bias Incident Reporting” protocol impermissibly threatens free speech on campus, Dartmouth College has lost its “green light” rating. The college had enjoyed the distinction since 2005.

FIRE first learned of Dartmouth’s bias incident reporting system in January 2013, when it was implemented following an incident in which a student spoke in mock-Chinese gibberish to several Asian students in the cafeteria. After reading media reports that Dartmouth was considering disciplinary action against the student, FIRE wrote to the college in February 2013 to express our concerns, both about the administration’s response to the incident and about the underlying policy, which defines “bias-related incidents” as:

behavior which constitutes an expression of hostility against the person or property of another because of the targeted person's age, creed, disability, ethnic or national origin, gender, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, political or social affiliation, race, religion, or sexual orientation.

Examples of bias incidents, according to Dartmouth’s Office of Pluralism and Leadership, include “telling jokes” and “stereotyping.” This policy is inconsistent with Dartmouth’s claim to be an institution that “prizes and defends the right of free speech.” If every joke or provocative remark about politics, religion, or culture is potentially subject to a formal investigation, Dartmouth students are not truly free to speak their minds.

Following our first letter, Dartmouth General Counsel Robert Donin responded to FIRE assuring us that “Dartmouth did not initiate any disciplinary action” in response to the January 2013 incident. But Donin’s letter did not address our concerns with the policy itself.

After roughly two years passed with no change to the policy, FIRE wrote to Dartmouth again in February 2015, this time warning that unless Dartmouth revised the policy, “FIRE will no longer be able, in good faith, to give the college our best rating for free speech.” Donin responded that the college would “consider [FIRE’s] suggestions,” but the policy remains unchanged to this day. Indeed, student newspaper The Dartmouth reports that several students have filed bias incident reports as a result of the library protest, reportedly as a result of the protesters’ “disrespect” for other students in the library. Obviously, if any of the allegations of physical violence are true, the responsible students would be subject to discipline under other, legitimate college policies. But demonstrators should not be investigated or penalized for “bias” simply because they may have used coarse or offensive language.

As a result of this continuing threat to free speech on campus, Dartmouth now receives a “yellow light” rating. Dartmouth Trustee Emeritus T.J. Rodgers, who was instrumental in helping to secure Dartmouth’s green light rating in 2005, expressed to FIRE his disappointment with the college’s backslide:

I was deeply disappointed that Dartmouth lost its FIRE green free-speech rating after we on the Board of Trustees and in the administration worked so hard to become one of fewer than ten Colleges and Universities in the U.S. to achieve that distinction in 2005.

It appears Dartmouth’s mid-level administrators have allowed free speech, literally the First of our Bill of Rights, to be shoved aside by an ersatz speech code that punishes students for saying things that others may find offensive or discomforting.

FIRE shares Rodgers’ disappointment, and we hope that Dartmouth will reconsider the decision to elevate the right not to be offended above the right to free speech on campus. Should that happen, FIRE would be pleased to restore Dartmouth’s green light rating.

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