Why Canceling Classes Tomorrow Matters

Interim President Carol Folt decided hours ago to cancel classes for tomorrow: Wednesday, April 24, 2013. According to a campus-wide blitz sent at 6:38 PM, the decision was “prompted by a series of threatening and abusive online posts used to target particular students in the wake of the protest that disrupted the Dimensions Welcome Show on Friday evening.”

In lieu of classes, there will be a series of events held throughout the day tomorrow. A “social justice and diversity” consultant will speak in Dartmouth Hall. There will be a “community gathering” outside the same building. The blitz indicates that the centerpieces of tomorrow’s schedule will be “small discussions facilitated by faculty and staff in rooms across campus,” from 1:30 to 3:00 PM.

It is not yet known how this will affect the academic schedules of classes on campus. The blitz makes vague reference to the issue, stating that “the faculty will decide how best to make up tomorrow’s class time.” All that is certain is that there will be no classes tomorrow in order to make room for these alternative programs.

This announcement comes on the heels of an April 20 blitz from Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson. In it, she stated that “on Friday evening a small group of students chose a Dimensions event to protest and express their views regarding some aspects of campus life. While the choice of venue may be debated, we are concerned because students who participated in the protest – as well as many students not involved in any way – are reporting that they are being harassed by other members of our community.”

Note that neither Dean Johnson nor Interim President Folt condemns the Dimensions protesters or the protest itself. Although Dean Johnson references the protest, she only writes that “the choice of venue may be debated.”

As articles in The Review and The Daily Dartmouth alike have already stated, these protests were not entirely non-violent. To give a short recapitulation: under false pretenses and explicit instruction not to come in, a group of students assaulted some upperclassmen trying to stop them from entering the main hall at the Class of 1953 Commons. The group then interrupted the middle of a skit in front of stunned prospies and students alike. Until they were inspiringly shouted down by a prospy-led chant of “We Love Dartmouth,” the protesters screamed a variety of slogans decrying the perceived level of sexual assault, racism, and homophobia on campus.

From almost every segment except the administration itself, there has been widespread condemnation of the protest. Students had worked tirelessly for weeks on end to prepare for the show: some of the participants visibly cried as the protesters took stage. Many prospies, especially the very students the demonstrators may have hoped to attract, will doubtlessly choose another school. What the protesters did was wrong.

Not only was it wrong – it was illegal. As pointed out by multiple commentators, the protesters broke more than one clause under Section VIII of the “Dartmouth Community Standards of Conduct,” which states that “students and student organizations must not intentionally disrupt, interfere with, or obstruct teaching, research, or College administration.” Punishable instances include “the unauthorized entry into, or occupation of a private office, work area, or a closed and/or posted College building” and “conduct (including by way of example, obstruction, noise, or the display of banners or objects) that prevents or disrupts the effective carrying out of a College function or approved activity, such as classes, lectures, meetings, interviews, ceremonies, and public events.” The demonstrators violated all of the clauses above.

The protesters also can be punished under New Hampshire law. Chapter 644 of the Criminal Code notes that “a person is guilty of disorderly conduct if he or she disrupt[s] any lawful assembly or meeting of persons without lawful authority.” Section VI states that “disorderly conduct is a misdemeanor if the offense continues after a request by any person to desist; otherwise, it is a violation.” As a video posted on YouTube shows, more than one person attempted to persuade the group to stop, and has been noted, the protesters actually assaulted someone trying to halt them from entering the main hall.

In essence, what the protesters did was legally wrong and morally suspect. And most everyone except the protesters and the administration themselves have said as such. But as the events of the last few hours have shown, the administration has cancelled classes tomorrow without any statement as to whether the protesters will be held accountable for their actions.

The protesters sent a letter sent to the administration on Monday, April 22. Without admitting any guilt or apologizing in any way, the group states that “since the Dimensions show protest, increasingly violent threats have been made to members of our student body…entire communities are being targeted and harassed.” The letter then quotes the standards of conduct that they had just violated, noting that “students are ‘expected to be sensitive to and respectful of the rights and interests of others.’”

The letter can be referring to two different forms of speech. The first, of course, is simple offense – saying something politically incorrect or hurtful that does not fall under the umbrella of harassment. As The Dartmouth Review has stated countless times, such talk should fall under the banner of free speech and should not be illegal at any level. Under the same principle, the protesters should not be punished for the content of their protest itself. Of course, any disgusting abuse of free speech should be condemned. The other, more concerning aspect of speech is, of course, overt threats. As #realtalk has catalogued online, a number of threats were made on the Dartmouth-exclusive social networking site bored@baker. Rumors are also spreading of harassment over the phone and in person.

As most Dartmouth students know, bored@baker is a message board that requires its users to register with Dartmouth email addresses. Absent a series of “personalities,” every post is made completely anonymously. Users can “agree” or “disagree” with posts. As such, the site has long been host to a series of opinions that doubtlessly would not have been said in an anonymity-free environment. Seeing as how the protesters deeply offended a majority of the campus, the response on (and off, for that matter) bored@baker was vociferous. Many posts directly attacked the protesters, calling them a variety of terrible epithets. A few called for the publishing of the involved demonstrators’ names; a few could even be legally construed as threats.

While such threats are indeed wrong, the way in which the administration is handling this incident is setting a dangerous precedent. When an illegal, disruptive and widely unpopular protest leads to the administration cancelling classes for the first time since 1986, it sends the message that violence is a justifiable means of instigating discussion. If halting classes truly makes students safer or ceases the harassment, then that’s good, but it cannot change the morality or legality of the protest. The administration ought to pursue justice and the rule of law by punishing those who committed or threatened violence in the past week, no matter their viewpoint. Harassment, even when hidden behind a cloak of anonymity, violates the law and the standards of the College. The same is true for violence, even when it is hidden behind a cause. The administration should treat all transgressions according to their legal ramifications and should make sure that this protest and the unfortunate reaction online does not result in the unthinking fulfillment of the protesters’ goals. Rewarding violence is no way to run a college. Neither is tolerating threats.

Nevertheless, we urge everyone to participate in the discussions tomorrow, so that the true voice of the student body is heard. The Dartmouth Review has written of the true “silent majority” on campus: students who love Dartmouth and its traditions. Although we do not like the manner in which these discussions were brought about, we hope that you will remain silent no longer. Protect what’s great about Dartmouth and, at the same time, join the discussion about how to improve it and restore peace to the campus. Despite the administration’s mismanagement, the harassment seen online, and the violence of the Dimensions protest, tomorrow is a real opportunity to make this wonderful place even better. 

–Nicholas S. Duva & J.P. Harrington

Note: An earlier version of this article read that Wednesday was the 23rd of April. This is clearly false and has been amended to the 24th of April.