A New Spin on Free Speech

College Counsel Robert Donin defends Dartmouth’s speech codes in today’s Daily Dartmouth. In his article, he cites a recent comment by President James Wright (emphasis added):

“The Dean derecognized the fraternity because of the repeated publication of a newsletter that cruelly demeaned specific women on campus. This incident was about behavior, not speech — the organization published articles describing the supposed sexual exploits of two undergraduate women who were identified by name.”

In other words, students are allowed to think satirical thoughts about their friends, but they can be punished for writing these thoughts down.

Donin continues, writing that the vanished letters from President Wright and Dean of the College James Larimore, which appeared to set out a speech code, did not, in fact, set out a speech code:

Removed from the context of the Zeta Psi case, these comments might imply a broader regulation of expression. But the letters were prompted by, and addressed to, the specific case at hand. (Both letters were commenting on the decision already reached by Dean Martin Redman concerning Zeta Psi, rather than setting forth policies that led to that decision.) The assertion that the letters constituted official “policies” subjecting students to penalties for discriminatory or unpopular speech per se is incorrect.

Donin is right. There is no speech code per se. That is why, absent any formal policy regulating or permitting free expression, we can look only to the views of the administration.

If the administration is committed to free speech, why did President Wright say in his letter that “speech has consequences for which we must account” and that he does not believe free speech is more important than the “rights, feelings, and considerations of others?” (In fact, that portion of the letter was not about Zeta Psi, as Donin suggests, but about the Indian symbol.) Why did Dean Larimore say that “the rules and standards of our community” are more important than the right to “expressive conduct?” Why did he write that unregulated free expression would be “corrosive of the very idea of a residential college?”

Donin says these letters represent the views of President Wright and Dean Larimore alone and do not reflect policy. But, since Dartmouth students lack any formal commitment to free speech and since the administration routinely cracks down on “inappropriate” speech, it is unclear why the opinions of the College’s top administrators and policy makers would be irrelevant.

The College applies this same rationale during its repeated attempts to censor The Dartmouth Review: students are free to hold whatever beliefs they like, but the College may place restriction on their dissemination.