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Testing Dartmouth

The controversy Ebony discusses in her post today represents the first public speech controversy since Dartmouth repealed its speech code in the last academic year. While we do not yet know all the details, it appears that Noah Riner is facing a storm of criticism for his obviously admiring remarks about Jesus to incoming freshmen. Storms of criticism can be weathered (see my previous post on the difference between criticism and censorship) and—as Ebony notes—should be expected at college. But in Dartmouth’s recent past, storms of criticism have led to something more: actual censorship and sanctions. Riner’s case will be a nice test for an administration that has admirably and publicly pledged support for free speech. Public pledges are wonderful (and easy) when there are no ongoing controversies. It is much harder to stand for free speech when a critical mass of students are actually outraged and demand a response.

As far as the student response goes, it is one thing to criticize, but it is quite another to call for punishment. Building a true free speech culture at Dartmouth requires more than just a policy change; it also requires students to understand the value of the marketplace of ideas. When I was hissed and shouted down at Harvard Law School, those students were not acting pursuant to a speech code—they were enforcing their own culture of repression.

It is fine to criticize Riner—he can obviously handle the criticism—but students should do so with the full awareness that they should also help build a culture that embraces dialogue, debate, and the free exchange of ideas, even the ideas of those who love Jesus (and aren’t afraid to say so).

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