Since the evening of Thursday, Oct. 19, there has been a memorial in front of Parkhurst Hall. By now, I’m sure most of us are familiar with it — it consists of black flags and signs on the lawn. In this column, I don’t seek to judge the political or moral efficacy of this memorial, but rather our administration’s response to it.
About an hour after midnight on Saturday, Oct. 28, two peaceful demonstrators were arrested in front of Parkhurst Hall by a large group of Dartmouth Safety and Security and Hanover Police officers.
President Sian Leah Beilock wrote in an email statement on the demonstration and arrests that “the situation changed when two students … threatened in writing to ‘escalate and take further action,’ including ‘physical action,’ if their demands were not met.”
Based on the representation above, these arrests seem perfectly reasonable. Students had crossed a clear line of threatening to escalate the situation, and threatening some kind of physical retaliation. If this was true, I would also want the protestors to be arrested or in some way removed. After I read that though, I still had questions: Specifically, what were the threats made?
Well, it turns out that the “threats” President Beilock was referring to were actually written parts of Sunrise Dartmouth’s “New Deal,” a document that outlines the ideas of the organization, and makes some specific demands to the College. The part that College administrators felt particularly “threatened” by? The New Deal states that if the school does not respond to Sunrise’s demands by Jan. 3, 2024, the organization “will escalate and take further action,” and that “those who believe in freedom will be forced into physical action.”
Yes. You read that correctly. These were the lines of text that President Beilock and members of the Dartmouth administration interpreted as legitimate threats. Although the demonstrators arrested were charged with trespassing, President Beilock contradicts that by calling out these “threats” to campus safety as the reason for the arrest of the protestors. I ask all readers to put aside their feelings about Sunrise Dartmouth for just a moment. Regardless of how much you agree or disagree with the organization involved here, this interpretation of their New Deal document as a threat of “physical violence” is gravely concerning, and is an egregious excuse to shut down a memorial on campus that has threatened to bring bad publicity to the new administration.
“Escalate and take further action” could be a march. It could be another vigil. It could be a sit-in. This escalation was also given a clear timeline, in which nothing other than the peaceful memorial should be expected from protestors for two months. After that two months, there isn’t any indication that the protestors would suddenly become violent either — members of the administration read it to mean this, though.
“Those who believe in freedom will be forced into physical action” is quite literally an explanation of why the protestors are sitting outside Parkhurst Hall — they have taken physical action in order to make their voices heard. Interpreting this as a direct threat of violence is especially dubious, since it is presented as a hypothetical statement of ideology rather than a direct statement of Sunrise’s specific intentions in their New Deal.
Instead of reading this document logically and reasonably, members of the administration decided after the fact to interpret the statements of these students with the worst, most malicious possible assumptions about their goals, in order to make their arrests more palatable to the Dartmouth community. Both of these quotes were shamelessly manipulated by President Beilock in her email to the school in order to make the situation that night sound as dire as possible.
These unjustified arrests are just the latest actions taken by members of the administration that represent threats to free speech on our campus. On Tuesday, Oct. 24, after requesting information about the specific policy they were in violation of, students sitting at the memorial were given a flier notifying them that they “are in violation of Dartmouth College Policy.” The flier included two specific paragraphs of Dartmouth's policy on free expression. This policy states that students are allowed to engage in protest if it does not include the threat of physical violence nor deliberately disrupt the regular function of the institution.
Since the creation of the Parkhurst Memorial, observers have been asked to move out from the middle of the steps, and they subsequently began to sit on the side of the steps. They have sat on the side of Parkhurst Hall’s steps respectfully watching over the memorial. They have been clear with members of the administration that they may take down the memorial materials if they wish, but that observers would video that action. What exactly are they disrupting? Employees have been coming in and out of Parkhurst since the memorial began. The orderly process of the institution has remained intact. There has been no credible threat of force, nor any force used. As far as this free expression policy is concerned, these students are completely compliant.
Despite handing out this notice to students, members of the administration have made no forceful attempt to fully shut down the protest. In fact, President Beilock has stated in her email that representatives from a couple departments at the College had reached out to the students to “offer support.” Despite this sentiment in her message, videos from protestors show the director of Dartmouth Safety and Security aggressively confronting the protestors on at least two occasions, suggesting that President Beilock is once again painting a more tolerant response to these protests from the College than actually occurred.
It seems that these arrests were supposed to be a convenient way for President Beilock and her team to deal a blow to the morale of the protestors that have been a publicity challenge for them for over a week. Unwilling to take the public relations hit that would inevitably come from shutting down these student’s demonstrations without cause, they manufactured a threat to insulate themselves from criticism.
President Beilock stated that she would make free speech one of her top priorities when she became president of our College. This event represents a definitive betrayal of those words. These arrests represent a terrifying creation of precedent: if they are allowed to go unnoticed, it will give members of the administration a broad ability to misinterpret statements as threats and shut down free speech events at will, so long as an email is sent out to campus the next day by President Beilock in which she states that she is still committed to her hollow words of support for free expression.
Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.