Verbum Ultimum: The Stakes of Speech

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 11/12/15 10:54pm

Last night, hundreds of students stood outside Dartmouth Hall and chanted, “Black Lives Matter” in unison. These students marched around campus, imploring others to join them. At times, the demonstrating students singled out individuals — individuals who, they said, were failing to support their movement and their lives. Some were offended by this method.

This demonstration coincides with a national movement to call out racism on college campuses. This month, protests against racism at Yale University and the University of Missouri — among others — have brought attention to race, speech and inclusion. At Yale, students reacted with anger to a faculty member who questioned an administrative reminder regarding culturally sensitive Halloween attire. At Missouri, students protesting racism on campus led to the resignation of two senior administrators — the university system’s president and the Columbia campus chancellor. At a public demonstration, a faculty member encouraged students to physically block a journalist trying to photograph the event.

This campus is well acquainted with debate over free speech and inclusion. This year, we have grappled with racially-charged displays of the Dartmouth Indian symbol and the Pigstick and Derby protests inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. These events fit into a long-term trend that includes the spring 2014 Freedom Budget sit-in at Parkhurst Hall and “Phiesta” controversy, the spring 2013 Dimensions of Dartmouth protest and the Occupy Dartmouth movement in fall 2011.

On other campuses, conversations about speech have been more worrisome. At Brown University, the Brown Daily Herald editorial board apologized for two opinion columns that expressed inflammatory views on race. One column was removed from the website. In September, the Wesleyan University student newspaper, the Argus, printed a front-page editorial apologizing for the “frustration, anger, pain and fear” supposedly caused by an opinion column that criticized the Black Lives Matter movement.

These instances highlight often-under discussed racial tensions on campuses across the nation — particularly for black students, whose lives have long been overlooked or lumped into more general conversations about “race.” At the same time, the protests’ messages are tied up in questions of free speech and its limits. Some believe that the right to free speech on college campuses is weakening. But what is at stake when our beliefs on speech rights diverge?

As a newspaper, we are naturally concerned about the freedom of the press. We cite the incidents at Brown, Wesleyan, Yale and Missouri not to label or shame enemies of free speech, but to suggest that the present climate needs repair. When news outlets are seen as foes, the free dissemination of information is threatened. This newspaper has had firsthand experience with community members who have declared public events off-limits and denied access to reporters. This puts reporters in a bind — on the one hand, we value respect and our community, yet we know that informing the public is vital to improving campus life.

Without the press, rumor dominates campus conversation. Further, students have less access to the beliefs and passions of those outside their immediate social circles. The press, when it functions at its best, humanizes those we do not know and do not understand — it gives us access to the narratives, voices and lives of others and helps expand our understanding of our community. Years down the line, the press provides us with a vital historical record.

More knowledge is always better than less, and we should want to hear as many views as we can. Our school motto, “Vox clamantis in deserto,” suggests there is something to be celebrated in those who go against the grain. Some words and ideas will anger and upset us. Regardless, we have a responsibility to endorse and guard all outlets of speech. We must not reject columns from this newspaper because they might offend. We must not lecture protesting students on how their protest was flawed or misguided while refusing to engage with their message.

Free speech, however, does not exist in a vacuum. We live in an unequal society, one where your skin color, your sex and your income can influence how free your speech really is. Censorship is not the only threat to free speech, and many of us fail to ensure that minority voices are equally audible. If the majority does not respond to speech that seeks to oppress, it fails to affirm that the lives of minority groups are valued. We cannot be shocked or outraged when these individuals in turn respond with unpopular demands.

For the College, the way forward is to foster a welcoming campus environment, to take the complaints and concerns of black students seriously — in addition to those of other marginalized groups — and to fix any shortcomings in institutional support.

If we, as individual students, wish to improve the situation, it is a poor choice to write off protesting students and other dissenting voices as hypocrites, even if they show an illiberal attitude toward speech. The marketplace of ideas is not a winner-takes-all system. We should not berate others or pass moral judgment on our peers because they have critical views of free speech — especially when the axiom of free speech has, for some, become an umbrella for hatred.

The marketplace of ideas is an imagined ideal, and in practice some speech acts are no longer an exercise of one’s rights but a danger to others. The terrorist threats recently made against black students at the University of Missouri warrant punishment. Direct threats of violence, intimidation or retaliation share the express purpose of instilling fear into another and restricting their freedom. Intimidation and violent threats are antithetical to a healthy learning environment. Students should not have to live in fear.

Censuring students or faculty for hate speech or insensitive views will not fix inequality on this campus. Speech does not cause such inequality — it reflects it. The failures of an allegedly color blind America show that prejudices persist even when unspoken. Individuals will only abandon such views if they are persuaded to do so. Shaming or harassing those who write right-wing columns as well as those who stage sit-ins creates a perverse new normal — you can harbor beliefs I consider unacceptable; just make sure I never hear or see them. If we are unwilling to defend the speech rights of every student — even when doing so is not in our self-interest — we only have ourselves to blame for the current state of affairs.