Editorial: Dartmouth’s Challenging Computer-Use Policy Update

  • Prospective Dartmouth College students are given a campus tour in Hanover, N.H., on October 7, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 9/22/2018 10:09:52 PM
Modified: 9/22/2018 10:10:15 PM

We do not envy Dartmouth College administrators who are now revising the college’s computer-use policy. In doing so, they are entering onto one of the most hotly contested ideological battlefields in American life: free speech on campus.

The overhaul began after the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a libertarian-leaning First Amendment advocacy organization, faulted Dartmouth’s policy for being too restrictive. It mandates that individuals who use the college’s information technology resources must agree not to post or transmit content “that is harmful, offensive, obscene, abusive, invasive of privacy, defamatory, hateful or otherwise discriminatory, false and misleading, incites an illegal act, or is otherwise in breach of your obligations to any person or contrary to any applicable laws and regulations.” Likewise, users must agree not to use the IT system to intimidate or harass others.

According to FIRE, “offensive” and “hateful” are the most problematic of the strictures because of their subjective nature, leaving them open to such broad interpretation that they could cover just about anything.

Dartmouth responded with an admirable lack of defensiveness, apparently concluding that where there’s FIRE, there’s smoke that needs to be dispelled. “They’re right about that,” Mitchel Davis, vice president and chief information officer for the college, told staff writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling. “We’ll be changing the language.” The new policy is scheduled to be released next month.

This will be an interesting exercise. Beyond speech that is expressly illegal, many of the other current content strictures are, as Davis noted, dependent on context, and context is hard to anticipate in any policy. For instance, does harassment consist of a single interchange or two, or must it be a sustained effort to denigrate and annoy? And at what point does that effort come to deprive its target of the right to enjoy what the university has to offer? All vexed questions.

The Dartmouth rewrite takes place in the context of confrontations on campuses nationwide about free speech, open inquiry, academic freedom and the right to protest. Advocacy organizations, some of them bankrolled by deep-pocketed conservative donors, have made it their mission to confront what they perceive as political correctness run amok in the university, restrictions on speech being seen as part of a whole spectrum that includes trigger warnings, microagressions, safe spaces and the like.

PEN America, a writers’ organization dedicated to defending authors and journalists around the world from censorship and other curbs on free expression, issued a detailed and thoughtful report two years ago about the state of free speech on campus and related issues. Titled And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion and Freedom of Speech at U.S. Universities, one of its insights is that the spate of recent controversies raises important questions about how the rights to free speech and academic freedom can be reconciled with the goals of inclusion and diversity in higher education.

On the one hand, universities have traditionally embraced a view of the First Amendment articulated in 1937 by Justice Benjamin Cardozo in a landmark Supreme Court case. He termed free expression “the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom.” Indeed, it is hard to see how institutions of higher education can fulfill their core mission unless faculty and students alike enjoy wide leeway for freewheeling expression of their views, even if others may find those views offensive. The university is precisely the place where unsound views and dubious propositions ought to be confronted by better arguments, even if the process is sometimes painful.

On the other hand, as campuses have become more diverse in many respects, some students — especially, but not exclusively, those belonging to marginalized groups — have begun to think that free speech has become weaponized and is being used as part of an effort to reinforce the traditional norms and power structures from which minorities have been historically excluded. And some campus observers make the case that to the extent that abusive language inhibits or drowns out the speech of those more diverse voices, it undermines a key argument for equity and inclusion in university life: that truth is more likely to emerge when a multiplicity of views are freely expressed.

The PEN report warns that this standoff, unless resolved, threatens to undermine support for free speech among a whole generation of students whose attitudes will shape society in the future. Indeed, at least one poll suggests that while college students are favorably disposed to free speech in general, they also favor some restrictions on speech deemed intentionally offensive. This is bad news for all who find in the First Amendment the bedrock on which the whole edifice of constitutional rights is erected.

These days, college officials are walking a tightrope over the chasm that has opened up on American campuses, and they have our sincere wish that they — and the rest of us — make it safely across with robust free speech alive and well.

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