Verbum Ultimum: Crying Wolf

Recent antics to stir up controversy are disingenuous.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 2/21/20 1:00am

If the Dartmouth College Republicans had not used the phrase “They’re bringing drugs…” in the subject line of an email sent to campus earlier this week, it is quite likely that none of what is described in the remainder of this editorial would have happened. 

But, of course, that is what the College Republicans titled their email announcing a “policy talk” with a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Bryant “Corky” Messner, who was scheduled to have an event at the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy on Tuesday on the topic of the need for more border security — specifically, a wall at the southern border — to fight the opioid crisis. 

Setting aside the rather galling implication that a border wall constitutes a serious solution to one of the United States’ most important problems today, one might reasonably understand why titling an email “They’re bringing drugs…” would upset people and lead to students expressing concern — which is exactly what happened.

What cannot be reasonably understood is why, two days later, the College Republicans announced that the event had been postponed, citing “serious security concerns.” If there had been legitimate security threats made, then the College and local police would have been involved in the postponement decision — which, as this newspaper reported yesterday, was not the case. In fact, as College Republicans secretary Griffin Mackey ’21 told The Dartmouth, the decision to cancel was made because the group determined it did not have the budget or time to secure security resources.

So maybe this was all one big mix-up, in which the College Republicans sent out a provocative email to campus that was misconstrued by students concerned about the event. But that would not explain why the leadership of the College Republicans then told a right-wing news outlet that the event was postponed due to “a possible violent response by left-wing campus activists” at a campus with “a large contingent of radical leftists,” in the words of then-College Republicans chairman Daniel Bring ’21. 

This version of events has since spread to a few other right-wing websites, all of which tell the same story about liberal intolerance for free speech and conservative ideas on college campuses. Yet missing from any of these accounts — or from the College Republicans themselves — is any proof that there was a serious threat of violence from members of the Dartmouth College Democrats or others directed toward the event or Mr. Messner. 

Much to his discredit, Messner has full-throatedly embraced the right-wing narrative that he was silenced by campus “leftists.”

“.@DartRepublicans were forced to cancel my appearance due to the militant stance of the Dartmouth College Dems,” Messner’s campaign posted on Twitter Tuesday evening. “Security threats demonized free speech at an institution of higher learning. Stop liberal censorship!”

The tweet, already on shaky grounds in terms of veracity — the College Democrats never made any sort of “militant stance” toward Messner — links to a page on Messner’s campaign website with a large photo of Mr. Messner, with his mouth covered with a black box with the word “SILENCED” written in white letters. 

“Liberals have taken over higher learning and have officially CANCELLED my appearance,” the page reads. “Help stop liberal censorship on campuses across the country by signing below.” Strong believers in the First Amendment then need only to provide their name, email address and ZIP code and click on a button proclaiming “DEMAND FREE SPEECH!”

But the threat of violence must have subsided, as Messner braved the snows of New Hampshire and made the trek to Hanover on Wednesday, where he filmed a brief video apparently taken on the Green.  

“The First Amendment applies to everybody,” Messner declared in the video, which his campaign posted on Twitter. “And shouting down and intimidating people so they can’t exercise their First Amendment rights is absolutely wrong. We will fight this battle. We will fight it hard.”

This editorial board would be the first to agree with Mr. Messner about the freedom of speech — after all, the First Amendment is the lifeblood of any newspaper. But the “battle” he is fighting is a rather pathetic attempt to spin a controversy out of something that, for all we can tell, did not actually happen.

Taking advantage of dubious controversies to promote free speech cheapens the cause of free speech. By casting himself as the victim of a supposed conspiracy, Messner cynically abused the cause of free speech to further his own campaign. But we do hope that Mr. Messner comes to campus to speak — it’s his right to do so.

Nonetheless, Messner’s campaign antics — ranging from misrepresentations to blatant lies — are unbecoming of a candidate for the United States Senate. And the College Republicans’ evident attempt to stir up trouble is a sad reminder of just how far our political culture has fallen.

The editorial board consists of the opinion editors, the executive editor and the editor-in-chief.