For those who have been concerned about the state of free speech at Dartmouth College, these are heady days. For decades, the administration at the small liberal arts college in New Hampshire had been waging a sometimes explicit yet ever-present campaign to impose political correctness on its students. While I was a student there, from 1997 to 2001, I saw administrators hold meetings to consider a response to a Christian group that had the temerity to distribute copies of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity to each student’s mailbox. (The administrators decided not to act, although they should never have held meetings in the first place, due to the chilling effect of such suggestive measures.) I saw them ban the door-to-door distribution of student newspapers, like my own Dartmouth Review, in the dormitories (a ban that is still in effect—except, it seems, for one off-campus company). They sanctioned one fraternity because of crude comments made to a female passer-by—even though the frat boys were on their own property at the time.
Perhaps most famously (or infamously), the college permanently derecognized another fraternity, Zeta Psi, because of a private, in-house joke newsletter that mocked several female students—even though the administration never specified which rule was violated. Indeed, as the Zeta Psi maelstrom roared, the college’s top administrators fell over themselves to raise the hue and cry against insensitivity. In a letter to the community, President Jim Wright stated, “[I]t is hard to understand why some want still to insist that their ‘right’ to do what they want trumps the rights, feelings, and considerations of others. We need to recognize that speech has consequences for which we must account.” Not to be outdone, Dean James Larimore added that Zeta Psi should be punished for violating the “values of the community.” He ended ominously: “Dartmouth has the right and the obligation to remove from its residential life system an organization that will not to conform to the standards of that system.” (For more on Dartmouth’s unflattering history of censorship, click here.)
These incidents show that Dartmouth’s administration was more concerned with avoiding bad publicity and mollycoddling the campus’s most thin-skinned students than with promoting a vigorous atmosphere of free expression.
Nevertheless, the past few years have brought some promising developments. The first was the surprise election in 2004, as a write-in candidate, of T.J. Rodgers to the eighteen-member Board of Trustees. Defeating a slate of college-approved candidates, Rodgers campaigned in part by criticizing the college’s neglect of free expression, and won handily in a crowded field. Then, in 2005, both Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki ran as write-in candidates, again campaigning on the issue of free speech. Despite a coordinated campaign by opponents to undercut Robinson and Zywicki, they both won as well.
In what was a complete coincidence, the administration started to change its tune once trustee candidates called attention to the state of free speech on campus. During his convocation address in 2004, and shortly after Rodgers’ election, President Wright made some encouraging statements regarding the centrality of free expression to the life of a college campus. Then, in April 2005, FIRE noticed that the letters by President Wright and Dean Larimore were no longer available on Dartmouth’s website. Finally, just days before the conclusion of balloting in the 2005 trustee election, Dartmouth’s general counsel wrote a letter to FIRE to state that those letters do not describe what was punishable under Dartmouth’s regulations. (These assurances prompted FIRE to upgrade its rating of the free speech climate at Dartmouth.) And finally, just last week, it was announced that Dartmouth will once again recognize Zeta Psi, thus ending the “permanent” derecognition of that fraternity. How things have changed.
Now, Dartmouth alums have another opportunity to flex their muscles: there’s another trustee election coming up, and write-in candidate Stephen Smith is looking to follow in the footsteps of Rodgers, Robinson, and Zywicki. He, too, is making free speech a central theme of his campaign.
Smith’s excellent website describes his impressive credentials and why he wants to be a Dartmouth trustee. He is campaigning on four core themes, one of which is “[e]nsuring genuine freedom of speech.” In his thoughtful essay, Smith recounts the recent, troubling history of free speech on Dartmouth’s campus. He emphasizes that real free expression can only exist in an environment where people are free to say what they think, without worrying about whether administrative sanction might follow. As Smith observes: “A marketplace of ideas cannot flourish as long as self-censorship casts its pall over the Dartmouth campus and the price of speaking out may be bullying by the college administration or official discipline.”
I must, however, quibble with one comment on Smith’s website. He observes, correctly, that First Amendment protection does not extend to “fighting words”—that is, words that are inherently likely to provoke a violent response from a reasonable listener. However, when Smith asserts that “racial, anti-gay, and other epithets” do not deserve constitutional protection for this reason, he misses the narrow scope of the “fighting words” doctrine—indeed, since the doctrine was first expounded in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 573 (1942), the Supreme Court has never affirmed a “fighting words” conviction. (For more on the effective evisceration of the “fighting words” doctrine, see FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus, available here.) It is important for students to know their rights, even at a private college like Dartmouth; after all, can a private institution really claim to respect its students’ free speech rights when those students don’t even enjoy the same rights as their counterparts at the nearest state university?
If Smith is elected, it would mean that fully half of the eight alum-elected trustees will have been elected via the write-in process, each on a free speech platform. Energized, in part, by the issue of free expression on campus, Dartmouth’s alums have been making their voices heard. It is a very unique and very encouraging development.
Administrators will censor only when they feel they can do so with impunity; they cannot do so if alums watch their behavior closely. If alums at other colleges and universities adopt the same approach, they can become very useful allies indeed in the fight to preserve free expression in higher education. Let’s hope that Dartmouth represents just the beginning of a nationwide trend.