Zete decision draws prominent critics

by Alice Gomstyn | 7/19/01 5:00am

Despite recent criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and several media sources, the College stands firm on its position that it violated neither the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution nor the spirit of the law -- which guarantees the right of free speech -- in its derecognition of Zeta Psi fraternity.

Earlier this month, the Boston Phoenix, an alternative weekly paper, named College President James Wright as one of several recipients of a "Muzzle Award," given annually to individuals the paper deems to be "anti-free speech zealots." The paper chastised Wright for upholding Zeta Psi's derecognition, claiming that the sanction imposed on the fraternity suppressed its First Amendment rights.

Days later, the Valley News ran a story on its front page titled, "Free Speech Abridged at Dartmouth?" The article mentioned the Phoenix's criticism of the College and also included an interview with executive director of New Hamphire's American Civil Liberties Union chapter, Claire Ebel.

Ebel slammed the College for its handling of the Zeta Psi case.

"The answer to speech you don't like is more speech. It's not censorship, and this [Zeta Psi's derecognition] is censorship," she told the Valley News.

Unlike public institutions such as state universities, Dartmouth, as a private enterprise, is not legally bound to enforce free speech rights in its recognition of campus organizations. Yet administrators do not rely on this legal technicality to defend Dartmouth's actions in the Zeta Psi case, in which the College shut down the fraternity following the emergence of "sex papers" published internally by the Greek house.

In fact, as written in the Student Handbook, College policy recognizes the necessity of "free and open discussion and debates." According to acting Dean of the College Dan Nelson, free speech, at least in regard to Zeta Psi's derecognition, is not the issue.

"Dartmouth sanctioned the organization for violations of behavior standards, not for speech," Nelson said in an e-mail message.

Nelson explained that Zeta Psi, through its publication of the offensive, often sexually-explicit newsletters, violated codes of conduct that the fraternity, as a College-affiliated organization, had originally agreed to uphold and was therefore subject to disciplinary action.

Nelson's statements echo those made months earlier by Dean of Residential Life Martin Redman. In an interview immediately following the announcement of the Zeta Psi decision in May, Redman -- who ultimately made the decision to derecognize the house -- explained that irrespective of the College's policy on free speech, individuals and organizations are to be held accountable if they violate rules such as harassment and ethical conduct. Zeta Psi, according to Redman, was guilty of just that.

Nelson sharply disagreed with Ebel's position.

"The point of view described in The Valley News story, which perceives that Dartmouth has somehow impinged on free speech rights by holding Zeta Psi responsible for its behavior, is incorrect," he said, later adding that, "the College has a long, proud history of protecting freedom of speech, and the actions taken in response to Zeta Psi's behavior are not at all inconsistent with that."

Ebel was not available for direct comment.