A Troubling New Policy

by Janos Marton | 5/23/02 5:00am

The 21st century is off to a pretty bad start already, and the decision by Dean of Residential Life Martin Redman to ban door-to-door delivery of publications has not made things better. On May 13, 2002, The Dartmouth ran an article titled, "New Door Locks May Hinder Delivery." The article stated that, according to Dean Redman, "student publications will be treated as solicitors for the purpose of the policy and will be asked to cease delivery inside the dorms." This will apply to both independent and college-owned publications. As the newly-elected Student Assembly president, I believe that I speak for the vast majority of students in vigorously opposing this censorious new policy. The students I have spoken to agree that prohibiting the distribution of publications has absolutely nothing to do with campus safety. No Dartmouth student has ever been attacked or assaulted in their dorm by a publication deliverer. It has, rather, everything to do with the purported mission of this College -- the free and open dissemination of ideas. Claiming, as Redman does, that this sharing of ideas violates some presumed "right" to privacy -- and suggesting that this presumed "right" to privacy ranks more highly than free debate -- is a statement that is out of touch with the student body.

Redman spoke about his new policy before the Assembly on May 14, 2002. While he clarified the administration's position, he did not assuage my concerns for the future of free discourse at Dartmouth. Essentially, one cannot distribute outside his or her dorm. I thus reasoned that a student can distribute within his or her own dorm, thus allowing any efficient organization to deliver successfully door-to-door. Dean Redman responded that any student who did so would be "violating the trust of the community." One student raised First Amendment concerns. In an attempt to assure the student Redman claimed, "We are not in any way censoring the content of the writing in these publications, but simply where they can be distributed within our facilities." This dangerous comment implies that theoretically, a student publication could be barred from distributing in Thayer, Collis or the Hop.

Redman noted that the policy was not set in stone, and that it is likely that "we can work something out" with the publications. Proposed ideas, such as placing bins in each dorms from which students can pick up copies, not only leaves these publications open to vandalism but also disregards the fact that most students are more likely to read a newspaper outside their door than they are a newspaper inside or outside their lobby. And who knows what compromise will satisfy those who have papers such as the New York Times delivered to their door? Certainly those cannot be left in a downstairs lobby. It is also difficult to negotiate a policy when there is no real reason for its creation, except a few Dartmouth students' misguided perceptions.

For Redman to claim that publications violate the trust of fellow students by delivering copies of a magazine or newspaper to their doors shows that he does not understand the nature of debate at Dartmouth. People on this campus are busy, and seldom find enough time to engage publicly in the exchange of artistic and political ideas. To have a publication delivered free of charge to your door, to be read whenever you have a few free moments is a welcome gift -- designed not to solicit, but to inspire, provoke and yes, perhaps even offend. These publications, focused merely on the freewheeling interplay of ideas, thoughts and opinions, embody the very goals of a liberal arts institution. Why would the College want to hinder this process?

This is certainly not about "trust" and "community values." These publications, unconcerned with profit or national scrutiny and focused on topics relevant to Dartmouth students, are able to address issues that no other media outlet can afford. Why would the college want to hinder this process? The last time the administration attempted to curtail the distribution of a publication was in 1993. This attempt at silencing student voices resulted in scathing criticism from all over the country, as students, alums and observers recognized Dartmouth's attempt at censorship for what it was. That experiment, fortunately, ended poorly for the College. It is likely that Dean Redman's more recent experiment will meet with the same fate.

The beauty of the written word is that no one is compelled to engage in debate. Students will read an article if they want to and will ignore it if they don't; they are under no obligation in either case. In this, publications are the perfect expressive venue. Unfortunately, the College is placing legal niceties and a misguided concern for peace and quiet above what should be an overwhelming interest in intellectual debate.

Publications widen the scope of discourse. Redman, sadly, is restricting it. That is a shame. Much as College President James Wright's claim to "end the Greek system as we know it" dampened enthusiasm for the otherwise excellent ideas put forward in the Student Life Initiative, Redman's hard work and commitment to safety on this campus might be clouded by this new policy, which will never have my support.