Bollinger talks about freedom of speech

by Jake Molland | 11/15/95 6:00am

Provost Lee Bollinger said yesterday that although Dartmouth is a private institution that cannot be controlled by the government, students do not abandon their First Amendment rights when they come to the College.

Bollinger told a group of about 20 students in Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity that certain areas, like military bases and college campuses, are exempt from constitutional law.

Although the Su preme Court allows school administrations to control the activities they sponsor, Bollinger said, "students don't give up their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gates."

Much of the discussion centered around differences between speech laws in public institutions and private institutions, such as Dartmouth.

"The Constitution does not apply to Dartmouth," Bollinger said, because it is a private organization. But because Dartmouth receives federal funding, Congress can indirectly negate the constitutional exemption.

Withholding federal funds "is an effective way of controlling private behavior," Bollinger said.

In extreme cases, the federal government also reserves the right to intrude directly in private matters, Bollinger said.

Bollinger, the former dean of the University of Michigan Law School and an expert on constitutional law, described ways "this country protects really, really bad speech."

Controversy about free speech is a 20th-century phenomenon, as the Supreme Court had never heard a case on the subject until 1919, Bollinger said.

More recently, much of the debate over the First Amendment, which protects free speech, has focused on attempts to censor the Internet.

Bollinger said he thinks the Supreme Court will protect speech on the Internet, despite the regulation of other electronic media, such as radio and television.

The reason for this is the resemblance between electronic mail and newspapers, mail, flyers and vocal speech, all of which are protected by the First Amendment, he said. Bollinger said the government also enforces speech law by deeming many private interests too interwoven in the political and business spheres to be considered private. He gave private golf clubs as an example of such organizations.

If, for example, a golf club discriminated against women and blacks, the state government could intervene on behalf of the Constitution.

Ironically, Bollinger said, the government may have less control over the institutions it controls, since they are regulated by Constitutional law.

At public institutions, "the government cannot forbid or punish any speech at all."

Bollinger also made several general comments about the limitations of the First Amendment.

For instance, the distribution of obscene material is illegal -- unless it is directly relevant to a political issue.

Pornography is also protected by the Constitution, provided it is not obscene, he said.

The vagueness of legislative definitions, such as the definition of obscenity, is responsible for the ambiguity of enforcement, he said.

Federal law may encroach on the private sphere in certain instances, he said. For instance, sexual harassment is not protected by the First Amendment.

"The problem is: How do we draw that line?" Bollinger said.

Hate speech is another delicate issue. "Neo-Nazis can march, the New Hampshire militia can march, the Klan can march down Main Street in Hanover" without violating the law, he said. "Free speech people say we can't bear the risk of general censorship."

The "experience of censorship is not a good one," Bollinger said. "We don't want to lose the speech we appreciate."

Bollinger said most schools choose to create their own speech codes.