College grapples with question of free speech on campus

by Wally Joe Cook | 5/18/18 4:15am

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by Peter Charalambous / The Dartmouth Staff

 On Jan. 10, 2018, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an education nonprofit that defends individual rights at American universities announced that Dartmouth had been downgraded to a “red light rating.” According to FIRE’s website, this title is reserved for universities that enforce policies that “both clearly and substantially restrict protected speech.” After this downgrade and a change in political climate following the 2016 presidential election, many individuals have begun to question the current state of free speech and political expression on Dartmouth’s campus.

The foundation once rated the College as a “green-light” institution; however, according to FIRE, the College’s acceptable use policies for IT resources impose an “incredibly broad restriction” on free speech, which led to the downgrade to a “red light rating.” When announcing the downgrade, FIRE also named Dartmouth its “Speech Code of the Month,” stating that the College cannot continue “claiming to protect free speech with one hand while explicitly prohibiting it with the other.”

While FIRE believes that the College is prohibiting free speech, a recent Pulse survey revealed that, out of the 1406 Dartmouth students who participated in the poll, 15 percent of students believe free speech on campus is very secure and 47.7 percent believe it is secure. Even though 62.7 percent of students believe speech is secure or very secure, the College’s confidence is slightly lower than the Ivy League average, which is 63.6 percent. Additionally, 74.2 percent of students somewhat or strongly agree that the College’s administration values free speech, the lowest of the Ivy League.

In total, 82.9 percent of students somewhat or strongly agree that the campus climate causes some people to withhold their beliefs because others might find the beliefs offensive.

One of those students is Dartmouth College Republicans president Abraham Herrera ’18.

“I think that there is a lot of self-censoring that goes on, especially as a conservative,” Herrera said. “From my own experience, there are things you say in class and things you don’t say in class, just for the sake of maintaining a friendly and open environment.” He said that left-leaning students do not face the same restrictions.

Dartmouth Democrats president Jennifer West ’20 also commented on student self-censoring.

“I think at Dartmouth, people use their judgment on what they discuss and in what company they discuss those things,” West said. “I have never felt that I’ve been silenced, but I recognize that it might be harder for people to speak up about issues that are not shared by the majority of our students.”

As the current state of free speech at the College was put into question, three notable speakers on the matter of free speech have visited the college over the past year.

Sterling professor of law and former dean of Yale Law School Robert Post lectured at the College about free speech on Apr. 12. He discussed the history of free speech in America, saying that the current protections guaranteed by the First Amendment did not exist until the 1930s.

Although the First Amendment may seem to apply to universities, Post said that these rights exist primarily in the space of public discourse and do not apply to college campuses. Therefore, according to Post, discussions about campus free speech issues should not be framed as a debate about the First Amendment. Post argued that in order for the First Amendment to establish free speech protections, three tenets, which emerged through court decisions, must exist. The tenets are that the state cannot discriminate based on content, that all ideas are equal and truth is decided in the marketplace of ideas, and that the state cannot compel speech.

“There’s nothing like First Amendment rights of students in the classroom,” he said in his lecture, “Unless you have these three rules, you do not have a First Amendment problem.”

University of Chicago Law School professor Geoffrey Stone visited Dartmouth to discuss free speech in Sept. 2017. Stone had chaired the University of Chicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression, which established a set of principles governing free speech on the University of Chicago’s campus. Like Post, he established the history of free speech in his lecture.

“The longer I’ve puzzled over the meaning of free expression and the longer I’ve thought about education, the more the two seem to meet or converge,” Stone said in his lecture.

Stone also referenced significant moments in United States’ history that threatened free speech on college campuses, such as when Yale removed professors accused of being communists as late as 1949. Stone said this caused Yale’s professors to censor their political opinions out of fear.

Author and blogger Yasmine Mohammed shares similar sentiments with Stone about the importance of free speech on campuses. Mohammed spoke at an event organized by the Dartmouth Open Campus Coalition on Apr. 19. In her lecture, she spoke of how she grew up in a deeply religious Muslim family that forced her to marry a member of Al Qaeda at a young age. She said her home was like a prison until she ran away to pursue an education.

After examining other countries that do not have freedom of speech, Mohammed believes that there are no instances where speech should be regulated on college campuses, citing examples from various foreign countries with weak speech rights, such as Qatar and Egypt, to explain the necessity of free speech.

“I would be killed because what I have to say would be considered hate speech in an Islamic country,” she said. “If we are going to regulate speech, who are we going to trust to regulate it?”

Despite what she is seeing on other campuses, Mohammed said that Dartmouth gave her hope.

“I’m actually really impressed by the students at Dartmouth,” she said. “The students that I interacted with do not fall for any kind of hysteria, they are just level-headed students.”

Mohammed emphasized the importance of everyone exercising their freedom of speech.

“If others can’t speak up, we should,” she said. “Regardless of the mean names and slurs that people might try to throw on us, it is incumbent on us to be the ones to speak up because of our forefathers who have fought for our right to do so.”

Herrera and West agreed that there are no longer such institutional barriers to free speech on campus, but Herrera noted that social repercussions still prevent students from speaking their minds. He cited Ryan Spector’s guest opinion column in The Dartmouth entitled “You’re not Tripping,” as an example. Spector’s op-ed on the lack of gender diversity in Dartmouth’s First-Year Trips Program incited a campus-wide debate following its publishing.

“[Spector] was lambasted with the idea of being a misogynist, the idea of being a sexist, a racist, and I think these were unwarranted, unfounded opinions,” Herrera explained.

Mohammed also discussed how students of different political leanings are treated differently on campus.

“It is much more difficult for a person with conservative ideas to speak on a college campus these days because it has been demonized,” she said.

She added that students who do not hold far-left views are often painted as far-right.

“The rational human beings in the middle of these two extremes are being silenced,” she said. “I’ve seen all of these tactics before, but I’ve never seen them in America.”

Herrera said that a student’s identity may influence their willingness to voice controversial opinions.

“Depending on what communities you are a part of, there are certain aspects of yourself that you have to either downplay or find a tactic to maneuver around,” he said. “As a Hispanic, I may feel less inclined to speak about illegal immigration because of certain peers I have on this campus.”

Mohammed claimed that she is worried because, like “trust-fund children” who do not value their parents’ money, young Americans today do not value free speech.

“The scary thing is I’m seeing that America is starting to think that regulating speech is a positive thing,” she said. “I don’t think the people that are calling for regulating speech realize what they are asking for.”

Like Mohammed, Stone said that students and faculty today must not take academic freedom for granted.

“I do suggest that every one of us that enjoys the protections and advantages of our hard-won system of academic freedom has a responsibility to justify his or her existence under it,” he said.

Herrera cited free speech history in the United States to demonstrate its importance.

“Free speech is probably the most foundational aspect of our country,” he said. “From a historical aspect, it was something that the founders found so important that they created this project of the American state so that we could freely debate ideas.”