Clarifying Free Speech

by Henry Shi | 10/15/03 5:00am

To the Editor:

N. Alex Tonelli, in his Oct. 13 column "Social Engineering at its Worst," writes: "It is blatantly unconstitutional to deem speech inappropriate simply based on the offensive nature it might contain" [sic]. Setting aside the question of whether speech can possibly contain some innate "nature," one notices immediately two things wrong with the quoted statement.

First, the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government (Congress, and later by extension the states as well) from passing laws abridging freedom of speech. It remains absolutely silent on whether or not the government may "deem speech inappropriate," which means simply to express an opinion. In fact, Congress deems a broad category of speech inappropriate, namely anything spoken or done that constitutes sexual harassment, and has provided the statutory means by which private parties can seek damages for the harms done by such speech.

Secondly, the implied actor doing the deeming in Mr. Tonelli's statement is not the government or an agent of the government. It is a private institution, and coincidentally an institution with a storied past of fighting to keep its status private. Alas, it is also an institution with a less-than-glorious past when it comes to racial and cultural sensitivity. Since we can rest assured that doing so will not run afoul of the Law of the Land, perhaps it is fitting and proper that the administration act to make Dartmouth a more welcoming place for all people.