Adkins: President Sian Beilock Has Set a Dangerous Precedent for Free Speech

President Beilock’s reaction to the arrests of student protestors threatens free speech on campus.

by David Adkins | 11/9/23 4:10am

Just a couple of months ago, the Dartmouth community celebrated the inauguration of President Sian Beilock with a sense of hope and optimism. Her fresh leadership promised to deliver for Dartmouth students by “[committing] to centering viewpoints and voices that aren’t always heard and to brave spaces to let that diversity of thought and lived experience shine through.” However, a few weeks later, the same Green that was full of students and faculty rejoicing at Beilock's inauguration transformed into a site of passionate protests by those very students and faculty, who were now challenging her actions and decisions. To understand how many students’ optimism turned to criticism, it is imperative to contextualize the arrests that occurred on Oct. 27.

Parkhurst Hall’s lawn has historically been a location on campus for people to express their grievances to the College. As the administrative hub of Dartmouth, housing key offices such as that of the president, Parkhurst serves as a place for voices to be heard in a tangible as well as metaphorical sense. In 1969, students occupied Parkhurst Hall in a “protest of the Vietnam War and the presence of ROTC on campus.” In 1986, it was the site of one of the student-constructed shantytowns to highlight Dartmouth’s investment in South African Apartheid.

These actions are not only a part of Dartmouth’s history but are intrinsically interwoven with how students exercise their right to free speech on campus today. In particular, the shantytown movement offers insight into how the College has approached free speech. 

In 1986, as protestors occupied the area, it was attacked by opposing students with sledgehammers. The police were called, and per the Washington Post, “10 of the 12 students charged in the attack were members of the Dartmouth Review.” While students protesting were ultimately arrested on counts of trespassing, Dartmouth dropped the charges. 37 years later, we find ourselves with interestingly similar parallels, but an asymmetrical reaction from the College with regards to the arrests of students.

Beginning on Oct. 19, student activists from the Sunrise Movement took shifts on Parkhurst’s steps watching over a memorial honoring the lives lost in Israel and Palestine, which they claimed the College threatened to take down. Inspired by the 1986 protests, two students planted a tent on Parkhurst’s lawn on Oct. 26 and planned to spend the night. Just a few hours later, numerous Hanover Police and Dartmouth Safety and Security officers descended on the lawn to arrest the students in the tent.

The Dartmouth Review was quick to applaud this action. In a piece titled “Bravo, President Beilock: Hanover Police Arrest Two Student Protesters,” writers actively praised the administration’s decision. Ironically, the same Dartmouth Review released a piece in September criticizing Dartmouth College for ranking “the worst in the Ivy League” when it came to free speech.

While I do understand that students were given College-sanctioned alternatives to ensure that their voices would be heard, the danger here is that allowing the College to determine where and when students can protest delegitimizes actions of protest. Protests have always been a means of dissenting against a higher authority. It is disturbing to think that Dartmouth can unilaterally determine whether or not nonviolent acts of civil disobedience are allowed to be carried out. 

In her letter to students, President Beilock cited the reasoning for the arrest being the “threat of escalating to further action and physical action.” Her statement also stated that “the situation changed when two students entered the tent and threatened in writing to ‘escalate and take further action,’ including ‘physical action.’” However, as Dartmouth Student Government pointed out in their response, the actual context of this statement is that these students did not directly make these statements, but the statements were taken from the Dartmouth New Deal, which incorporated language students had used in the 2014 Freedom Budget. Additionally, the students were arrested due to criminal trespassing, not for making threatening statements. This grotesque intimidation directed at nonviolent student activists coupled with President Beilock’s reaction endangers an environment that is predicated on the principles of free speech. 

DSG provided more context in a statement released just a few hours later, explaining that they “maintain that the administration should have exercised better discretion when student protesters engaged in non-violent civil disobedience” and “believe the College should have shared its concerns about ‘physical action’ prior to escalating the situation to arresting student protesters.”

Regardless of your perspective on the Dartmouth New Deal, this misrepresentation depicted peaceful protesters as if they were actively threatening College property, even though they had no prior knowledge of the College’s specific concerns regarding the use of the term “physical action."

I fear that these arrests create a new, dangerous precedent for student activists participating in civil disobedience. Whether done explicitly or not, students will now have to be even more cautious when participating in protests. As Sunrise pointed out in their op-ed in The Dartmouth, “physical action” encompasses a broad scope of nonviolent tactics of protesting rather than a mere violent threat. During peaceful protests after the arrests, students held signs saying “this is physical action.” However, these protests were held on a corner of the Green rather than Parkhurst’s lawn out of fear of further escalation from the College. Arresting students and citing the threat of “physical action” as the reason for the arrest (despite the students only being charged with criminal trespassing) harms the already shaky state of free speech on Dartmouth’s campus. This will only further encourage students to shy away from taking a stance on controversial issues. 

At a school that claims to serve the needs of undergraduate students, discouraging students from having their voices heard directly contradicts the school’s mission to “foster and protect the rights of individuals to express dissent.” If we are not able to encourage spaces for students to express themselves, whether convenient or not, we jeopardize this institution’s commitment to nurturing future global leaders through open dialogue and self-expression.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.