Commentary: Dartmouth president should drop prosecution of protesters

By EMILY SIMPSON

For the Valley News

Published: 12-03-2023 7:00 AM

As a high school teacher in the Upper Valley, I am deeply concerned about Dartmouth College’s decision to pursue criminal charges against two students exercising their First Amendment rights in calling for the university’s divestment from “all organizations that are complicit in apartheid and its apparatuses,” among several other demands.

The Hanover Police Department arrested Roan V. Wade and Kevin Engel on charges of misdemeanor criminal trespass based on their tent encampment in front of the college’s administration building, Parkhurst Hall — a nod to student activists in the 1980s who constructed shanties on the Dartmouth Green to protest the college’s financial involvement in the South African apartheid state. However, in a follow-up statement, Dartmouth President Sian Leah Beilock emphasized that the arrests occurred because of a perceived threat of escalation and “physical action” that would jeopardize campus safety.

The phrase in question (“If the Dartmouth administration does not respond by the indicated time, those who believe in freedom will be forced into physical action.”) was pulled directly from The Freedom Budget, a 2014 campaign by a coalition of student organizations that demanded the redistribution of power and resources to address the concerns and oppression of marginalized groups at Dartmouth. This connection was made even more explicit in footnoted updates to the Dartmouth New Deal document in the days following the arrest. By continuing to justify the prosecution of these two students with a misrepresentation of their use of language, Beilock is not only obscuring the historical inheritance of student activism on Dartmouth’s campus, but also contributing to the narrative that Palestinians and those who advocate for Palestine are inherently violent or dangerous in their approach.

In fact, Beilock’s administration has provided us with yet another example of what researchers and lawyers have come to define as the Palestine exception to free speech, where “activists and their protected speech are routinely maligned as uncivil, divisive, antisemitic, or supportive of terrorism.” Palestine Legal has received over 800 legal requests related to suppression of Palestinian rights advocacy since Oct. 7, whereas they responded to 214 incidents in all of 2022. This exception often creates a “chilling effect” similar to many of the recently passed divisive concepts laws that my colleagues across New Hampshire and I contend with on a regular basis. When institutions create environments of fear, they hope that people will self-censor rather than engage in speech or behavior that might run afoul of vaguely communicated lines. None of this is good for students, who we as educators and school staff are supposed to support in their growth both academically and as human beings, even if we disagree with them or their tactics.

I worry for my current students — many of whom look up to institutions like Dartmouth as an ideal for their pursuit of higher education — and what may befall them on campuses in the years to come as they take the critical thinking lessons we have instilled in them and apply them to their world. It has been disconcerting to see the number of universities becoming more and more comfortable calling in local law enforcement to make arrests at student demonstrations, establishing contact between young people and the criminal legal system that may long impact their future — particularly if they are students of color or members of other marginalized groups.

Wade and Engel already received two terms’ worth of probation via the college’s Committee on Standards. What is gained, then, by pursuing criminal charges? It is clear that in this case, the aim is not accountability, but punishment, and punishment harsh enough to attempt to discourage others from engaging their freedom of speech in the same way.

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While President Beilock claims to be concerned about the use of the word “physical” as an elusive specter of potential violence, the actual violence being enacted upon people as a result of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian sentiment is horrific and starting to hit even closer to home. Less than two hours away, three Palestinian college students were speaking a mixture of Arabic and English — two of them wearing keffiyehs — when they were approached and shot four times by a man who said nothing before the attack. Hisham Awartani, a student at Brown University, described himself as “but one casualty in this much wider conflict.”

When students start making connections between the past and the present moment, when they begin articulating the ways in which they understand struggles to be interconnected, when they point out the manipulation of language to achieve a particular end — those are things that we in education should be celebrating and critically engaging with in turn. If you find yourself prosecuting those students, instead of being in conversation with them, you might not be in the right profession after all.

Emily Simpson is a History and English teacher at Lebanon High School, and a member of Upper Valley for Palestine. This column represents her own views and not those of the Lebanon School District.