Dartmouth College in New Hampshire is being lauded for leading the Ivy League “in respecting individual liberty and free expression.”
Dartmouth no longer has a poor free-speech rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) . The school had been under scrutiny for de-recognizing a fraternity for publishing an internal newsletter that insulted two female students. Following the incident, Dartmouth posted two letters on its website one from the college president and one from the dean justifying the punishment. But after being contacted by FIRE, the college removed those letters from the website.
FIRE president, David French, said Dartmouth is “clearly positioning itself as a national leader in the battle for free expression on campus.” And, although he does not consider the situation at Dartmouth perfect, French calls the school's decision regarding the letters an “enormous step forward.”
The letters from Dartmouth president, James Wright, and dean, James Larimore, says FIRE, appeared to be “inconsistent” with the college's traditional policies supporting freedom of expression and dissent. But, because statements made in those letters “'elevated feelings' over free expression,” and because they were used to justify speech-related punishment, and appeared on the college website, FIRE concluded they effectively constituted a speech code.
However, Dartmouth general counsel Robert Donin claims the school has not changed its free-speech policies. “There was some language in those letters that FIRE interpreted as representing a broader prohibition on the expression of opinions or views in general,” Donin remarks, “and the correspondence that we've had with FIRE recently was intended to clear up that distinction.”
According to Donin, the letters were removed from the website to avoid “confusion” about the school's free-speech policies. “I think there was a misunderstanding about some statements that were made back in 2001 in connection with a specific case that involved some pretty intense, personal abuse directed toward two undergraduate women,” the attorney recalls. “Some comments were made at the time by the president of the university and the dean of the college concerning that particular incident.”
Donin says Dartmouth is pleased with FIRE's recognition of the school's “longstanding commitment to freedom of expression.” French says his organization is hopeful the entire Ivy League eventually will follow the lead of Dartmouth as well as the University of Pennsylvania in refraining from school-mandated student censorship and threats of punishment.
FIRE Chalks Up Another Victory
The State University of New York at Brockport has agreed to repeal its speech code. It is the fourth consecutive victory for a Philadelphia-based group and its campaign against such codes on America's public college and university campuses.
Last June, with help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) , two students in the College Republican Club filed a federal lawsuit alleging that SUNY Brockport's anti-harassment policies violated their free-speech rights. Under Brockport's speech code, examples of harassment included “cartoons that depict religious figures in compromising situations,” calling someone an “old bag,” and “jokes … making fun of any protected group.”
Brockport has now reached a settlement with FIRE legal network attorneys. Greg Lukianoff, FIRE's director of legal and public advocacy, says the school is no longer trampling the First Amendment. The school, he says, demonstrated “good judgment” in dealing with the issue.
“They decided to try to rectify their policies,” he states. “I mean, it wasn't a very close call to begin with like way too many schools, SUNY-Brockport's policies were clearly unconstitutional.”
Lukianoff says, while Brockport's decision to end censorship of student expression is a welcome move, it is one that will be monitored to ensure the university follows through with its commitment.
“Just because you've eliminated rules that are formally, on their face, unfavorable to speech, doesn't mean that censorship is definitely over,” Lukianoff explains. “Some of the worst cases that FIRE sees actually involve situations where students are punished, not under unconstitutional speech codes, but under existing rules just wrongly applied.”
While SUNY Brockport would not admit wrongdoing in the settlement, it has agreed to remove the aforementioned examples of sexual harassment from its policies. FIRE has also defeated speech codes at Texas Tech University, Shippensburg University (in Pennsylvania), and California's Citrus College.