Dartmouth College lands among the bottom 10 colleges and universities in FIRE’s 2024 College Free Speech Rankings. But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost for Dartmouth’s students. Far from it. Current students and alumni are taking steps to address the toxic culture surrounding expression on Dartmouth’s campus.
Earlier this year, alumni united to form the Dartmouth Free Speech Alliance, and a concerned student hosted a free speech symposium featuring First Amendment experts. It may be just a start, but FIRE is hopeful that with leadership from alumni and students, Dartmouth will climb out of the bottom of the College Free Speech Rankings.
How bad is free speech at Dartmouth?
In FIRE’s 2024 survey, we asked students, “If a controversy over offensive speech were to occur on your campus, how likely is it that the administration would defend the speaker's right to express their views?” Only 2% of Dartmouth student respondents said it is “extremely likely” that the administration would defend the speaker’s rights, while only 11% said the administration is “very likely” to do so. Additionally, 6% of students said the administration is “not at all likely” and 32% said it is “not very likely” to defend the speaker.
Students entering college this fall can expect a culture of conformity and censorship according to a new FIRE survey of more than 55,000 students across the country shows that most attend colleges that don’t value free expression.
It’s no wonder students struggle to believe the administration will back up the rights of invited speakers. In 2022, Dartmouth canceled journalist Andy Ngo’s speaking appearance after three student groups — Dartmouth College Republicans, Turning Point USA, and the Network of enlightened Women — invited him to campus. Dartmouth claimed it did so based on information from law enforcement about apparent threats of violence. Upon further inquiry by FIRE, however, it appears the main reason for the canceled speech was censorship. Then, Dartmouth imposed unreasonable security fees on the three groups who invited Ngo — even after the event was moved online.
After this abuse of administrative power, many students understandably do not expect the administration to protect their invited speakers from cancellation and disinvitation. This hardly inspires courage among student groups to invite speakers who might present challenging ideas to some members of the campus community.
Unfortunately, like the administration, many Dartmouth students approve of illiberal activities. Dartmouth students scored poorly in the disruptive conduct category of the survey, meaning they were more likely than students at other institutions to approve of shouting down speakers, blocking entry to a campus speech, or even using violence to prevent a campus speech.
How students and alumni are advocating for free speech at Dartmouth
Inspired by Dartmouth’s disappointing performance in the rankings, a group of Dartmouth alumni are also banding together to support free speech-friendly initiatives at the college.
Alumnus Peter Slovenski has become more and more concerned over the years about the state of free expression at his alma mater. As a Dartmouth graduate and longtime track and cross country coach at Bowdoin College, Slovenski understands the state of campus culture, especially at small New England liberal arts colleges. He worries that “modern college politics are sometimes inadvertently, and other times intentionally, blocking viewpoints that should be heard in educational discussions.”
So Slovenski decided to take action and start a free speech-focused alumni organization called the Dartmouth Free Speech Alliance. He commends his alma mater for its “intelligent tradition of listening to both sides of cultural debates” but worries that individual expression is no longer encouraged. He says the group’s intention is “to help Dartmouth professors, students, and guest speakers participate in campus dialogue without intimidation from national or student forces that try to polarize our debates.”
Dartmouth community members young and old are tired of illiberal campus policies and practices that discourage dialogue across differences.
Luckily, some students already value free expression.
Dartmouth sophomore Malcolm Mahoney applied to FIRE’s Campus Scholars program to improve the free speech culture at his college. He was selected to host a “Free Speech Symposium” featuring FIRE Director of Engagement and Mobilization Connor Murnane alongside Student Body President Jessica Chiriboga, Assistant Dean of Student Life Ed McKenna, and Senior Lecturer and Public Policy Fellow at the Rockefeller Center Charles Wheelan. During the symposium, the panel discussed the importance of protecting free expression to cultivate an academic culture where students can freely pursue truth and knowledge.
Mahoney reported on the student response to his event, saying, “I got a lot of texts after the event explaining how this information was so new and critical to them! They had not really given a thought to this issue before, but now they are more cognizant of how important it is to preserve free speech on campus.”
Although it’s disappointing to learn that students at one of our nation’s top colleges had never encountered the fundamental arguments for free speech before, it’s encouraging to hear that they responded positively to learning about free speech.
FIRE is proud to support alumni and students who are taking up the cause of free expression for the future of Dartmouth College. As Mahoney’s and Slovenski’s efforts attest, Dartmouth community members young and old are tired of illiberal campus policies and practices that discourage dialogue across differences.
Subscribe to the Dartmouth Free Speech Alliance’s email list to stay up-to-date on alumni activity for that campus.
FIRE is happy to partner with alumni interested in starting similar groups at their alma mater. Feel free to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We're joined by First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza and British journalist Brendan O'Neill to discuss the state of free speech in the United States and Europe. Randazza is a First Amendment attorney and the managing partner at Randazza...