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The Dartmouth
April 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Supporting Free Speech When it Matters Most

Dartmouth prides itself on its pluralistic and free environment. A part of this environment is a sharp focus on vibrant debate. This is the foundation of our liberal arts education " that ideas are forwarded in the crucible of rigorous examination, an essential component of which is considering the alternative and refuting it. Freedom of speech is the very basis of why we are undergraduates at the College; why then does this freedom come under fire so often in our community?

From a purely legal standpoint, Dartmouth can institute whatever speech codes it desires. Therefore, as a private institution it has no actual obligation to do any of the things herein proscribed. However, the institution which upholds freedoms only with a gun to its head has no true commitment to those freedoms in the first place.

Dartmouth as an idea, and as a community and not just an administration, does have an obligation to us to respect this freedom in all its forms. Without this, our degrees would mean nothing. Yet many involved in this educational process would do nothing other than destroy the very idea of free speech at Dartmouth.

There was recently a hailstorm of controversy surrounding a certain convocation event. Without going into the details of the cause, which have been beaten to death by so very many tiny sticks on this page and elsewhere, the most troubling aspect of the debacle was a claim made in response to a Guy and Fellow comic. It was inappropriate, it was claimed, for Paul Heintz '06 to satirize Jesus of Nazareth. It was offensive to the Christian community at Dartmouth, it was claimed, and Heintz and others would do best in the future to avoid such offensive material as a portrayal of Jesus as a foul-mouthed potsmoker in an attempt to make a point about a campus controversy.

The fact that the large majority of the campus probably disagrees with that line of logic notwithstanding, it is still important to refute its logic because it is so virulent and antithetical to the very core of our community. If Dartmouth were to officially or tacitly disallow a humorous and irreverent portrayal of Jesus solely because some members of its community revere him as lord and savior, it would utterly annihilate the equality of ideas which permits our education to be so robust.

If Heintz were forced to stop drawing even sacrilegious cartoons, I and many others here at Dartmouth might as well pack our bags and return to the medieval vision of education which saw the Bible and Aristotle as the Undisputed Truth. In our academic community, Jesus is equivalent to any other historical figure or thinker; he had more effect on the world, certainly, but to bar cartoonists from making fun of him would be the same as barring them from making fun of Plato. The very idea is laughable.

Even more disturbing than this rather silly exchange was an experience I had last week while attending a panel discussion entitled "Coercive Interrogations and Targeted Killings: Justifiable measures or self-defeating excess?" Hoping for the vibrant exchange of ideas that the discussion title suggested, I sauntered happily to the basement of Moore Hall only to be greeted by a group of protesters apparently led by Professor Ronald Edsforth, who was handing out a flier at the door to Filene Auditorium. This flier presented what I consider to be the most egregious attack on the spirit of this institution I have ever observed. Disregarding the rest of the typo-laden page, a line tirading against torture and assassinations ended with the words "some issues should not be debated." I gag just remembering it.

Let us put aside the fact that leaving this issue undiscussed actually hurts Edsforth's position. It is the current policy to do interrogation and targeted killings, therefore letting the issue go undebated serves only to preserve the supposedly undesirable status quo. The idea that there are some issues so settled which deserve no discussion and whose discussion should actively be silenced is repulsive, silly, and as evocative of a medieval education as that sensitivity to humor described above.

Dartmouth is an institution of inquiry " we students matriculate to this winter wonderland for one reason, and one reason only: we have asked ourselves "why?" more often than most anyone else in this world. Anyone can support free speech when he agrees with it; the only time one's support of this freedom actually matters is when one is vehemently opposed to the speech.

Shutting off a line of inquiry because it is "barbaric," "illegal," or "immoral" is not an option at Dartmouth. It was an option to the Soviets, to the ancients, to the Church " but it is not an option for us.