Old Dartmouth: Classes. New Dartmouth: Civility ‘teach-ins’

Robert Shibley Senior Vice President, FIRE
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Dartmouth College students got an unexpected surprise Wednesday — a day off of classes! For that, they can thank a series of events that started with a group of fellow students calling themselves Real Talk Dartmouth. The group marched into a performance of songs and skits for admitted students last Friday and screamed “Dartmouth has a problem!” at the top of their lungs while chanting about the problems of a campus they see as rife with homophobia, sexism, and sexual assault. This impressed the high school seniors in attendance about as much as you might expect. The Dartmouth reported that “Lainie Caswell, a prospective student from Palo Alto, Calif., said the protest was a ‘low point of the weekend.’” One can only imagine.

A large contingent of Dartmouth students showed a similar lack of enthusiasm for the disruptive protest. One student quoted in The Dartmouth opined that “Shouting at a bunch of 17-year-olds who are away from their families, who are looking to make a decision, showed that they were not thinking straight. … It was counterproductive, it was rude, and it reflected poorly on them.”

But not all critics took so measured a tone. On an anonymous Dartmouth-themed online discussion board called Bored at Baker (Baker is the name of Dartmouth’s library), which is currently offline for supposed technical reasons, anonymous persons presumed to be students expressed their, shall we say, unhappiness with the event crashers. An example provided by The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Wish I had a shotgun. Would have blown those [expletive] hippies away.” A few screen captures can be seen on Real Talk Dartmouth’s blog.

Apparently, these online comments were too much for Dartmouth administrators, who cited “threatening and abusive online posts” as their reason for, with only a few hours’ notice, canceling all classes on Wednesday. Their replacement? “Alternative programming designed to bring students, faculty, and staff together to discuss Dartmouth’s commitment to fostering debate that promotes respect for individuals, civil and engaged discourse, and the value of diverse opinions.”

Obviously, threatening people online is wrong, a bad idea, and in extreme cases can even be illegal (if you’re making credible threats). If the threats were illegal, the individual perpetrators should be found and punished. But nobody should be surprised that people said mean things on the Internet. What’s more alarming is that Dartmouth found this to be a reason to cancel classes. The message this sends is that anonymous “trolls” on the Internet, who are emboldened by the fact that they are unlikely to have to personally defend their nasty comments, can force a 244-year-old institution (that’s older than the United States itself) to cancel classes on less than a day’s notice. Severe weather and even the deaths of students and murder of professors hasn’t been able to do that. If we were talking about terroristic threats in response to which Dartmouth went on lockdown, that would be one thing. But that’s not what happened. Dartmouth canceled classes in favor of talking about being more civil to one another through speeches and “teach-ins,” but the message it actually sent was that incivility and nastiness, even just online, can get dramatic results. Trolls can disrupt the education of thousands of students, including those who could not care less about the controversy.

The students of Real Talk Dartmouth also made a poor choice, and not simply because they alienated what appears to be a significant percentage of Dartmouth students. Disrupting an event is not the same as engaging in free speech. While there should be some breathing room for minor heckling and vehement audience response to speakers, a five-minute-long hijacking of someone else’s event in order to spread your own message is unacceptable. Yet the administration seems to be treating the disruptive protesters with kid gloves.

This January, Dartmouth went into an uproar and launched an investigation by college cops and administrators when “[t]wo students reported that another student walked by them, made eye contact and verbally harassed them by speaking gibberish that was perceived to be mock Chinese.” Should Dartmouth have canceled classes after that incident? (It didn’t.) If not, why not? What’s worse about this one? And will classes be canceled the next time someone says mean things on the Internet? The fact is that people are always going to say things that someone will find unpleasant or offensive. There’s only one solution to this situation: All parties involved need to grow up and start taking a mature, adult attitude toward free speech by realizing that part of life is having to hear things you wish you hadn’t.

Robert Shibley is the senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).