Ellis: Vox Clamantis in Silentium

Dartmouth should do more to promote marginalized groups’ speech.

by Simon Ellis | 10/12/17 12:45am

In the fall of 2016, conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos came to Dartmouth to speak, despite vocal objections from many students and faculty. Last spring, Native American studies professor N. Bruce Duthu ’80 declined his appointment as the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences amid concerns over his support of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Both of these events roused dialogue about Dartmouth’s commitment to supporting diverse ideas, but they also raised a larger question. What obligation does Dartmouth, as a private academic institution, have to uphold free speech and at what point should Dartmouth comment on and act upon the public actions of its students and faculty?

Dartmouth is a private institution, so it does not need to operate under the same constraints as one that is public. Private institutions can dole out sanctions against their members in accordance with internal disciplinary guidelines, as Harvard University recently demonstrated in its decision to rescind the acceptance of several students over inappropriate posts in a private online group chat. Dartmouth, likewise, has the legal right to create the kind of environment it wants.

The College advocates for “the vigorous and open debate of ideas within a community marked by mutual respect,” according to its core values. If Dartmouth truly holds these values at the core of its character, why did Duthu face such strong opposition? The College aims to have its community debate ideas in a respectful manner, to support intellectual inquiry and the eventual arrival at an abstract view of truth. This debate of ideas is valuable to a point, but the expression of ideas must not directly incite hateful expression. In the case of the reaction to Duthu’s appointment, it became apparent that not everyone on campus shares this belief. Dartmouth should support the same values it claims on its website in practice and should encourage respectful debate among students and faculty in the correct spaces, including a respectful debate of the values Duthu expressed.

Students are not alone in this quest for a diversity of ideas and a larger commitment to free speech on campus. In a recent lecture, professor Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago Law School stressed the importance of allowing the free and unrestricted expression of ideas, so long as they do not directly include hate speech and or incite violence, on campuses. He went on to say that the suppression of speech can create the precedent for the continued suppression of speech in a way that eventually results in the overall loss of expression for groups on either side of an argument. It stands to reason that suppressing only certain forms of speech would create an argument to suppress other, perhaps historically more silenced forms of speech.

What then, should the College do to allow students and faculty with controversial options to express their ideas in a proper environment? First, the College should continue to emphasize that while we, as members of the College, represent Dartmouth in some ways, that does not imply that our views represent the views of the College. My views represent the views of a single member of the College: myself. Although speech can be used as a judge of character, a comment made by a member of the College is not a comment made by the College and therefore does not represent the College’s character. This is not to say that I believe a direct interpretation of the First Amendment is correct — in fact, just the opposite. The College should act as a mediator to discuss ideas and facilitate speech. There is a time and a place to discuss issues, and Dartmouth must focus more on making sure all beliefs have an equal chance of being heard and discussed rather than directly commenting (or not) on the speech of members of the College.

Dartmouth can and should make a commitment to helping students understand views that may oppose their own. This responsibility should not fall on students in traditionally marginalized groups. College programs aimed at helping minority students adjust tend to be aimed at adjusting to and accepting socialized norms rather than considering perspectives from outside of the norm. These issues could spawn a completely new discussion about the College’s programming, but for now, I think they pertain directly to speech on campus. Are we asking traditionally silenced groups to accept and understand the voice of the majority or is it the other way around? These questions and more need to be addressed by the College.

Although Dartmouth has a long way to go in support of free speech, so do many colleges and universities across the nation and world. There is no way to address these issues perfectly as they tug at morals and values that many people hold close. We are at a point in history where there is more of a chance for non-traditional voices to be heard, and silenced, than ever before. How we use this power will determine the course of our academic and every day future.