The Hamilton Insurgency Continues

January 27, 2006
While the American Association of University Women’s extremely misguided sexual harassment report might give you reason to believe otherwise, all the news this week has not been bad. Specifically, FIRE has heard good tidings out of New York State, where fresh trustee elections are going on at Hamilton College. To get some context, check out what then–FIRE President David French wrote last July:
Like Dartmouth, Hamilton has a mechanism for open trustee elections, and, for the first time in many years, those elections are contested. Several alumni have formed a group called Hamilton College Alumni for Governance Reform and have put forward three candidates who hope to “restore Hamilton’s reputation and credibility as one of the premier liberal arts institutions in the world.”
Unfortunately (but, given Hamilton’s history, unsurprisingly), the dissident candidates face severe free speech restrictions on their campaigns. The candidates are limited to a single 100-word statement of candidacy to be mailed to alumni, and that statement “may not include any contact information or references to specific hard copy or online resource material.” In other words, candidates have 100 words in which to make their case and cannot refer alumni to a website. Further, candidates may not even be permitted to use email for campaign purposes. How can a candidate run an effective campaign offering a comprehensive critique of the status quo in 100 words? How can they get their message to the voting alumni without references to additional materials or e-mails? More importantly, how are such draconian free speech restrictions at all consistent with representative democracy and academic freedom?
While open trustee elections are a credit to Hamilton College, the college should immediately lift its free speech restrictions and permit a real debate and a real choice for its alumni.
We later dubbed these insurgent candidates “The Hamilton Insurgency” and commended their apparent commitment to freedom of speech—but thanks in large part to Hamilton’s restrictions on the election, they lost. The good news, though, is that not only is the Hamilton College Alumni for Governance Reform (HCAGR) group fielding candidates again right now, but the college has also liberalized its election procedures. Here is how Hunter Brown, the head of HCAGR, responded:
It appears that the explicit and direct prohibitions of free speech of the candidates, specifically against the provision of contact data and references to hard copy material or on-line resources in the statements of candidacy, have been removed from this year’s rules.
We welcome and applaud the change and hope it reflects a thoughtful return to Hamilton’s traditional principles and not a situational assessment of the public ridicule that would have otherwise ensued.
Why an institution that vigorously proclaims itself to be committed to free speech and the free and open exchange of ideas had those restrictions in the first place is a question worth considering.
And one that bears on the votes to be cast in this coming election.
Indeed. FIRE joins HCAGR in applauding Hamilton’s changes—but as we have been pointing out for months, if the college truly loves liberty (as its policies claim), there is more to do.
For more on the trustee race, see HCAGR’s website.

Schools:  Hamilton College