Dartmouth Groups Clash Over Displays for Police, Black Lives Matter

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/17/2016 12:23:07 AM
Modified: 5/17/2016 2:09:51 PM

Hanover — Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon on Sunday denounced the removal of a bulletin-board display in honor of slain police officers, calling the action “an unacceptable violation of freedom of expression on our campus.”

In memory of police officers killed in the line of duty, the Dartmouth College Republicans student group on Thursday night arranged the exhibit, titled “Blue Lives Matter,” in the Collis Center. On Friday morning, the posters, which gave statistics on law enforcement deaths and hailed the country’s “everyday heroes,” were replaced by fliers that read “You cannot co-opt the movement against state violence to memorialize its perpetrators #blacklivesmatter.”

Participants in the protest group Black Lives Matter claimed responsibility on social media, saying the play on their name undermined efforts to curb police violence.

Some students who claimed to have removed the posters found themselves targets of harassment on Twitter; requests seeking comment were not immediately returned on Monday.

The College Republicans interpreted the incident as censorship.

“As an organization, we took the time and effort to obtain proper approval for the display while putting significant thought into its content,” the group wrote in a statement on Friday. “We are dismayed that a group of students would attempt to censor our message while co-opting the space for their own purposes.”

Leaders of the student political group did not respond to requests for comment.

On Sunday, Hanlon sent an email to campus criticizing the student activists.

“The unauthorized removal on Friday of a student display for National Police Week in the Collis Center was an unacceptable violation of freedom of expression on our campus,” he said in the statement, which also appeared on the college website. “Vandalism represents a silencing of free exchange, rather than open engagement.”

The bulletin-board incident is the latest in a string of race-related disputes on campus.

In November, Black Lives Matter activists staged a protest in Baker-Berry Library after unidentified individuals removed parts of their own display, which commemorated African-Americans slain by police.

Unsubstantiated reports of violence at the protest, as well as first-hand accounts of abusive and racially charged epithets, led to a backlash against the activist movement, and Hanlon at the time released a statement that appeared to criticize the demonstrators.

The college president also promised punishment for any students found to have misbehaved during the protest, a promise that he renewed for this latest incident.

A college spokeswoman, Diana Lawrence, declined to comment on whether specific students would undergo judicial review for their involvement in last week’s controversy.

“I can confirm that Dartmouth is investigating the matter,” she said, “and any students identified as being involved in such actions will be subject to our disciplinary process.”

Lawrence also said that the college’s investigation of the November protest, which is now complete, “determined that there were no violations of the Standards of Conduct.”

Beyond the merits of this latest dustup, tensions over race and activism and a newfound sensitivity in public discourse have students on campus watching their words.

Two undergraduates, Arun Ponshunmugam and Sushmita Sadhukha, ate lunch on Monday just steps from the bulletin board that sparked last week’s uproar. The board bore no sign of either side’s postings.

Ponshunmugam, a junior, said he disagreed both with the tone of the College Republicans’ display and with activists’ decision to take it down. Black Lives Matter promotes an important message about police brutality, he said, and the display appeared to undercut it.

“ ‘Blue Lives Matter,’ in some way, steals that thunder,” he said. “They could have found another way to honor police who died responding to 9/11.”

Both students were wary speaking to a reporter, and Sadhukha, a sophomore, said the campus climate had led her to self-censor in discussions with her classmates.

“I think to an extent you can talk to people of opposing viewpoints,” she said, “but I wish I could talk more freely with people.”

“You do want to tread lightly,” Ponshunmugam added.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.

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