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Dartmouth's 'safety' rationale crumbles as records reveal censorship as the primary motivator in canceling event with Andy Ngo

Andy Ngo speaking with attendees at the 2019 Teen Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, D.C.

The Dartmouth chapters of the College Republicans and Turning Point USA were scheduled to host conservative journalist Andy Ngo (pictured) and activist Gabriel Nadales to discuss left-wing political violence in the United States. Then the college cancelled the in-person event. (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

Dartmouth’s eleventh-hour cancellation of a student event featuring journalist Andy Ngo due to “safety” concerns immediately raised suspicion, especially after precious few protesters actually showed up. Now, police department records cast even greater doubt on Dartmouth’s security rationale and demonstrate how university administrators ignored law enforcement when they censored their students. 

In the weeks leading up to a Jan. 20 in-person campus event featuring Ngo and activist Gabriel Nadales about left-wing political violence in the United States, the student organizers alerted Dartmouth to online groups threatening to disrupt their event. Communications between the student groups, public safety officials, and Dartmouth show the university was well-prepared for potential violence, as it had enlisted the local Hanover Police Department to help safeguard the campus discussion. 

Despite the online fervor, few came out on the blustery, New England night to protest the event. Even so, right before the event was set to begin, Dartmouth forced the student organizers to hold it online, or not at all. 

If such threats did exist, Dartmouth has not shown them to the student organizations, FIRE, or the general public.

Dartmouth claimed it based its decision on “concerning information” from the Hanover police, yet refused to provide any details. Responding to FIRE’s Jan. 26 letter calling on the college to explain these alleged security concerns, university President Philip J. Hanlon furnished no additional information and instead curtly remarked that “Dartmouth prizes and defends the right to free speech.” 

FIRE didn’t buy it. Something stunk, and it wasn’t the smell of stale beer emanating from Keggy the Keg — the anthropomorphic barrel that serves as Dartmouth’s unofficial mascot. We filed an open records request for all communications logged by Hanover police about threats against the event.

Our skepticism yielded results: It turns out the Hanover police “did not make a recommendation to Dartmouth College regarding the January 20th event.” In fact, Hanover police chief Charles Dennis stated, “With the information we had, we were as operationally prepared as best we could to handle the event and protest.” He also added that “we were not provided a reason or reasons for Dartmouth’s decision” to cancel the event. Likewise, the daily crime logs of campus and local police detail no threats to the event.

Records of police communications to university administrators describe online 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. If such threats did exist, Dartmouth has not shown them to the student organizations, FIRE, or the general public. 

Dartmouth’s conduct is far from that of an institution that “prizes and defends the right to free speech.” When faced with illiberal attempts to use violence to squelch speech, a commitment to expressive freedom requires universities to address the disruption, protect the speaker, and ensure that events can go on as planned. Dartmouth did the exact opposite — punishing the student groups by altering the venue and format of their event at the last minute despite no evidence of severe disruption, and law enforcement’s extensive preparations to ensure public safety. 

In our letter to Dartmouth today, we explain why bogus safety concerns must not be used to excuse canceling students’ expressive events: 

Sacrificing free speech rights when faced with actual violence is seldom justified; restricting expressive activity in the absence of substantial disruption is inexcusable. Far from protecting free speech, Dartmouth’s actions will only prompt future threats and will deter speakers from coming to campus—to the detriment of campus safety and students’ expressive freedoms.

FIRE once again calls on Dartmouth to explain what specific security concerns necessitated the cancellation of the Jan. 20 event. We urge the college to recommit itself to free speech by promising to make genuine, serious, and transparent efforts to protect students’ expressive rights when threatened with disruption going forward.

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).

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