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The Dartmouth
June 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Saklad: In Support of Free Speech

Dartmouth students risk silencing productive debate.

I do not believe in hurting others. It is important to me to live on a campus where the student body can feel safe and respected regardless of personal identifiers or beliefs, but I think there comes a point when political correctness begins to tread on people’s toes. When legitimate expression of political or otherwise controversial ideology becomes compromised or vilified on campus, students need to take a step back and understand the repercussions of responding with outrage. Equating disagreeableness with hatefulness intentionally smudges the line between exercising and abusing free speech, placing significant constraints on campus conversations.

At the risk of reopening an old wound, Ryan Spector ’19’s guest column “You’re Not Tripping” can serve as an example. Like other feminists on campus, I found his piece to be an incredibly ignorant display of white privilege; unlike other feminists on campus, I am glad The Dartmouth published it. Spector’s outrage over the gender imbalance in the incoming First-Year Trips directorate was insensitive, but it was not hateful. His article contained no threats, slurs, harassment or otherwise unsafe language. He wrote a piece expressing an unpopular idea, and he was not overstepping his rights in doing so. I certainly do not support the content of his piece, but I do believe that calls to retract his article from The Dartmouth were unfounded. Choosing not to publish his article would have been an obvious obstruction of Spector’s right to free speech and equally as ignorant as writing the article.

Dartmouth faced a similar conundrum on the subject of freedom of speech in the fall of last year when Dartmouth Students for Life and the College Republicans invited Kristan Hawkins to give a talk as part of her “Lies Feminists Tell” tour. As president of Students for Life in America, an anti-abortion student activist group, Hawkins attracted an audience consisting primarily of pro-choice protesters. Following a heated question-and-answer session, some students argued that Hawkins should not have been invited to speak on campus at all, suggesting that her stance and language were too offensive to be given a platform on campus. Although Hawkins did lose her composure multiple times during her presentation and certainly did not behave in a professional way in response to well-founded oppositional inquiries, I maintain that it is important to welcome strong voices like hers on campus.

Only inviting speakers whose viewpoints are supported by the vast majority of the Dartmouth community creates a façade of accordance that can be suffocating to students with minority stances. Such a policy would inhibit dialogue by offering many members of this community no option other than to agree with the self-proclaimed majority. Excluding controversial public figures could be far more harmful than their potential to offend. Silencing voices who deviate from the current social justice narrative could force many students to hide their views and self-segregate. The Dartmouth community should lend a fair ear to those who are motivated to express their genuine opinions and initiate productive discourse over topics of disagreement rather than slandering them. Society has only progressed so far because many of its pioneers have tackled dissent head-on. By inviting unique and even controversial voices into campus conversation, students can benefit from the opportunity to grow and develop their own standpoints further by recognizing, considering and refuting counterviews.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a man called the “Pit Preacher” stands on a crate at the bottom of an outdoor auditorium in the central area of campus and spouts an endless stream of extremely right-wing Christian theory for hours on end, during any given day of the week. Students either ignore or heckle him, but UNC generally allows him to remain on campus. At a public university, his speech is protected. I am not saying that students need to invite a “Pit Preacher” to campus, but Dartmouth could take a page from UNC’s book and practice tolerance of unpopular opinions.

Dartmouth is currently labeled a “red light” school by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, meaning the College implements some of the most restrictive policy on speech of any school in the country. Dartmouth’s “Acceptable Use Policy,” outlined on the College’s Information Technology website, bans publishing and distributing plagiarized, unsolicited, defamatory or discriminatory content. Its criteria are logical and generally irrefutable, but students risk applying them too broadly. Before they condemn speech as a violation of the campus’ “Acceptable Use Policy,” students should consider whether it is truly hateful or simply controversial. If it is the latter, supporters of free speech have the responsibility to prevent the silencing of distinct voices on campus.