Dartmouth under FIRE

We’ve seen some encouraging developments this week regarding the free speech climate on Dartmouth’s campus. It’s important to get a sense of perspective.

Four years ago, President Wright felt comfortable asserting that free speech is bound by the constraints of other people’s feelings. (He said this boldly and confidently; I don’t doubt he believed it then, and I really don’t think he’s changed his mind since then.) Four years ago, this arrogant and self-righteous attitude was expressed not just by those letters,but also by the College’s draconian punishment of a group of students for nothing more sinister than mere private jokes. This was Dartmouth’s public, official reaction to a case that attracted significant (negative) press coverage.

Today, the negative press coverage is properly focused not on Dartmouth’s supposed indifference to the feelings of its students, but on its hostility to free expression. This is thanks to FIRE. Talk about backpedaling — Dartmouth has really distanced itself from its showpiece rhetorical response to the Zete affair. As a precedent for future actions against students, Dartmouth has repudiated those letters. This doesn’t mean that there definitely won’t be another Zete — but it does give encouragement.

(It’s worth saying that I don’t think that administrators have suddenly had an epiphany regarding free speech. More than anything else, many administrators — at Dartmouth and elsewhere — are just careerists at heart. Ideology drives a lot of administrators to censor, but I really think that most are motivated by a simple desire to keep the campus quiet and the donations flowing. If being a fan of free speech garners public praise, keeps the checks coming, and maybe takes the wind out of the sails of those pesky petition candidates for the Board of Trustees — well, that’s all the incentive they need, isn’t it?)

It’s important to recognize that real progress has been made here. True, Zete remains derecognized; no one should trust this administration until that wrong is righted. True, Dartmouth still bans student publications from the dorm rooms; anyone who would now say that Dartmouth welcomes free expression with open arms should keep this fact in mind. Facially, Dartmouth’s policies are acceptable; but it would be naive to think that everything will be hunky-dory from now on. Rather than causing a relaxation of efforts, I think this week’s success should spur us to push the advantage, to keep the pressure on — because now we know that it can work, even at Dartmouth.

In the end, let’s not forget: today, Dartmouth is closer to having a healthy respect for free speech than it has been for many, many years. This is undoubtedly cause for celebration. FIRE has worked very hard to get us this far; it is no mean feat when you have no legal weapons — only principles. For this, FIRE deserves our thanks.