March 22, 2007

Smith on Free Speech

Missed this the other day, but now it seems Stephen F. Smith, petition candidate for trustee, believes that Jim Wright is not only on his side about free speech but has a better idea of what it is!
What is the role of free speech at Dartmouth?
In setting out to answer this question, I found–as I often did as a student in his “History of the American West” class many years ago–that I couldn’t improve on the answers given by President Wright. In his 2004 Convocation address, President Wright gave an excellent speech on the value of free speech at Dartmouth that, in my opinion, everyone in the Dartmouth family should read... I couldn’t agree more with these [Wright's] views.
But before we think Smith has acquiesced to the fact that Dartmouth—as an institution and as a community—is not in the practice of suppressing free speech after all, he pulls back and reclaims the non-issue as a key plank of his platform:
Although President Wright and I have some disagreements, we are in complete agreement on the value of free speech at Dartmouth: to be true to its educational mission, Dartmouth must fully protect the freedom of expression on campus. One of my priorities as Trustee will be to ensure that the administration lives up to its pro-free speech rhetoric in practice.
So, although Wright's views on free speech are perfectly consonant with Smith's own views, and although Smith can't give an example of free speech actually being suppressed (as opposed to criticized—the "counter-speech pointing out the errors in what the speaker had to say" that Smith talks about), and although Dartmouth is one of only two Ivy League schools with a green light rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) we should still worry about free speech enough to elect Stephen Smith. Only Smith can truly ensure that free speech will be protected.

This leads me to a simple question: why should we trust Smith any more than he trusts the administration? He's a lawyer, sure—in fact, a law professor. But are we to presume that his mere presence on the Trustee Board will scare off any sinister suppressors in the administration or the student body? We've elected a law professor already (Todd Zywicki) and, judging by Smith's rhetoric, it must not have helped—Dartmouth is still in danger of a deep wave of censorship and oppression. Heck, we even have an old Reagan crony on the Board, the man who gave Reagan the words to stand up to Russian might, and we still are in danger of Soviet-style suppression. Perhaps it's the Armed Forces we should be calling in, not a law professor!

Seriously, though, if we look at the way Smith orchestrates his arguments about free speech, we can find good reasons to distrust his own commitment to the "marketplace of ideas" which he touts as free speech's Edenic equivalent. I take as basic values of the marketplace of ideas that you attribute other people's ideas properly, especially if you disagree with them; you don't focus your attacks on straw men; you don't misrepresent the opinions of another; and you acknowledge when you change your position. Stephen Smith has skirted each and every one of these fundamental values in his latest post.

First, acknowledging when you change your position. When Smith put up this page at the beginning of his campaign, he presented Wright as directly infringing upon free speech, "bullying" students into "self-censorship." Now, Wright is the greatest proponent of free speech. Wright's views at the beginning of the campaign were "the very antithesis of freedom of speech;" now, "we are in complete agreement on the value of free speech at Dartmouth." There is no attempt to explain this vast divergence—one month saying Wright is silencing students, another that he articulates the value of free speech better than Smith can do himself.

Secondly, not focusing your attack on straw men. Well, clearly Smith isn't shy about using Wright himself as evidence when he feels he can, but whenever he decides Wright isn't the proper target, who gets placed in the crosshairs? "The administration," typically, or in this case unnamed "administration supporters." If he's really intent on taking us shopping in a marketplace of ideas, it would help if he doesn't try to abstract the vendors into anonymity.

This leads, in fact to the third point—properly attributing opinions, especially when they oppose yours. Smith sets up these abstract "administration supporters" as straw men, but he gives them a very specific claim to hold: that "free speech is not a 'conservative' or 'libertarian' issue." It's possible that he's been talking to some professors or some people in the administration who have told him something like that but, and I know this will sound self-absorbed, the only person to have said anything like that in print is me. In this article, I said:
the “defense” of free speech is, in fact, not defensive at all, but rather an offensive maneuver designed to ensure that only these conservative alumni have the ability and grounds for determining what free speech is at Dartmouth. The purpose is not to protect free speech, but to reserve for these conservatives the exclusive right to decide when it has been sufficiently protected.
If you're looking for a time when an "administration supporter" has linked the crusade for free speech with conservative ideology, this is it.

However, and here comes the fourth point—the one about not misrepresenting others' opinions—what I said does not mean anything like "free speech is a 'conservative' or 'libertarian' issue." What I said was that this particular effort to protect free speech is driven by conservative interests—and in the interests of not using straw men, let me be explicit—Rodgers, Zywicki, Robinson, Smith, some (but not all) of the Smurfs, notably Malchow and Eastman, and those alums who have been supporting these figures monetarily—and these men have been supporting it by using a libertarian ideology that borrows from over-simplified free-market ideas. (I elaborate on that in the article.)

That doesn't say free speech is a conservative or libertarian issue, it says that the conservatives and libertarians who are using it as an issue right now are doing so for narrow and illegitimate reasons—namely, that they wish to control when Dartmouth's speech is sufficiently free.

If Professor Smith is truly intent on partaking in a marketplace of ideas, I ask him to conform to some baseline of open discourse. If I'm off-base on this and he's actually referring to the views of someone else, then I hope the next time he refers to them, he doesn't airbrush them out of the argument.


  1. Anonymous11:27 PM

    One of the biggest surprises for me in this trustee election has been the vehemence of the campus’s liberal elements – of which I’m a member – towards Stephen Smith. For example, members of SA’s Diversity Affairs committee seemed to treat Smith’s approval of the McKinsey report as a de facto call for reducing OPAL, which I think is a farfetched assumption. I always thought that conservative groups were the passive-aggressive conspiracy-driven force on campus, but now I'm not so sure. The opposition towards Smith has understandably carried over into harsh criticism of Smith’s stance on freedom of speech.

    I agree that Smith has misstepped regarding free speech. Right now, the administration has been quite supportive of free speech, as indicted by the green FIRE rating. But in a larger context, I think that questions remain about Dartmouth’s stance. If President Wright’s views were so unequivocal, his staff would have no need to remove former statements he made from the Dartmouth website. But they did, following his 2004 convocation address. The anti-Smith coalition on campus has been citing the FIRE rating as evidence that there is no free speech problem at Dartmouth. But despite the rating, FIRE did release a statement praising Smith’s platform. That is not necessarily a contradiction. Just because something is good in the short term, in the immediate, does not mean that it is stable. Take for example the Greek system. Only a few years ago, the administration said the Greek system was desperately in need of immediate change. Now, few of those changes have been fulfilled, but according to the administration, the Greek system is doing excellently. If somebody were to consider recent administrative statements about the Greek system without the context of time, they would think that there was no controversy regarding the Greek system at Dartmouth. We know better.

    Smith was wrong to suggest that there was an immediate problem regarding free speech at Dartmouth. But that doesn’t mean that his emphasis on free speech is wrong. In a liberal society, and particularly in a private academic community, free speech often holds a tenuous position. Certainly, the terrible events of the fall have put a strain on the balance between free speech and the Principles of Community. Anybody who believes that a clear line between free speech and “fighting words” can easily be drawn is sadly mistaken. Even though I believe the state of free speech to be excellent at Dartmouth, I also fear that the more comfortable we become with our institution’s stance towards free speech, the more we risk a weakening of it in the name of protecting the community. And I agree with Smith’s surprise that free speech has been converted into a conservative issue. Growing up, free speech was always a liberal issue to me. It was in the name of free speech that I helped convince my high school’s administration from banning political assemblies, which at my school were held by our array of progressive and LGBT groups. The barriers for speech are rarely adequately leveled, even at Dartmouth, where Untamed, for example, recently struggled to receive funding, being told by COSO that there already were a lot of groups for women at Dartmouth. Free speech is not a simple issue, but it is always important, and I don’t think that the attention that Stephen Smith has given it is fundamentally misplaced, ill intentioned, or a mistake.

  2. My point is not that an emphasis on free speech is wrong; my point is that Smith's initial framing of the idea and his present hedging around the issue suggest that he really only believes in a marketplace of ideas brokered by the conservatives with whom he is ideologically aligned. If he's changing his tune now, it's because it's readily apparent to anyone who knows anything about Dartmouth's present state that his initial statements were blatantly fearmongering. How can we trust a candidate who doesn't even bother to get his facts straight before he goes around accusing the administration of violating basic civil rights? How can we trust someone who honestly has done nothing for Dartmouth in the way of service before asking for asking us to vote him into a governing position?

    My vehemence against Smith is that he's the epitome of the vulgar politicization of Dartmouth alumni politics—someone who will say whatever has been successful in the past without regard to the facts, who changes his story when he runs up against the facts, and who expects to waltz onto the Trustee Board without having been much of a son of Dartmouth for the past few years.

    I know he excuses himself by pointing to his family—that's great. I'm glad he has a family, but why is he willing to sacrifice his time with them now but wasn't before? And how can he expect that just because he's willing to make that commitment now, he deserves a trustee position?

    I think it's pretty clear he's a political candidate through and through, and I'm sick of politicking. I hated it when liberals were doing it over the alumni constitution, and I hate it now.

  3. HELP!! I'm a liberal 96 who is too busy as a public defender to follow campus politics, although I was quite involved back in the day.

    I am not about some conservative revolt against the Administration - I shared many goals with Dean of the College Lee Pelton and Dean of ORL Mary Turco. But I've thought James Wright to be an idiot since I was on campus. Anyway...

    I do want a bit of a revolt. When I decided to go to Dartmouth I decided to go to Dartmouth COLLEGE, a liberal arts institution where the quality of undergraduate education was rivaled only by Princeton, bigger than inbred Amhearst or Williams, but definately not a university where undergrads are taught by TAs.

    The North campus seemed cool enough - give some of those undergrad departments room to breath, but one of Wright's first comments was something to the effect of "well, with 3 graduate schools, it already is a university."

    I do not want my college to be Harvard. I don't want to pretend like I'm proud of when the "latest study out of Dartmouth indicates xyz...," while the students of philosophy, english, history, classics, geography, and all the other great humanities and social studies get marginalized.

    Whom does a liberal such as I vote for in the Trustee Election?

  4. Larry, the short answer to your question is Sandy Alderson. I think of the three nominated candidates, he's the most ideologically independent and seems the most interested in reaching out to alums. I think he has sympathies with some of the conservative alums (he has stated that he met with Rodgers and Robinson and talked with Zywicki to discuss the election),and I imagine that sympathy rests in just these kinds of issues.

    For a longer answer, I'll try to have a post up in a few days.

  5. Geez, Sandy has a wonderful resumé, but when he is on record in the D as saying:

    "I think in many respects, if not most respects, the College is in great shape and headed in the direction," he said. "I've known [College President] Jim Wright for a considerable amount of time ­-- he is one of the reasons that I got involved in the College again in the late 1980s. I have a lot of respect for what he has accomplished during his tenure."

    then I have to put my own support elsewhere. We have a Board already filled with "highly qualified" rubber stampers.

    Larry, you are correct in your characterization of our President; but add in duplicitous/dishonest to your description.

  6. P.S. The quote is accurate:

    "I think in many respects, if not most respects, the College is in great shape and headed in the (sic) direction," he said.

    Obviously the D forgot the positive adjective Sandy used.

  7. Joseph, I think "rubber stamper" is going too far. Alderson would have had no reason to contact Zywicki, Robinson, and Rodgers if all he simply intends to support Wright mindlessly. At the very least, even if he intends to stand behind Wright on most issues if elected, he still felt the need to reach out to the President's main opponents, an action which I think does show some considerable open-mindedness.

    Smith lacks a record of commitment to the College and has proven himself to have an unclear understanding of what is actually going on at the College, substituting gross ideology for communication with students. The only kind of commitment he does seem to have is a commitment to political posturing. I think he is a terrible candidate, and a vote for him is not going to help Dartmouth, even if you do think Wright has screwed up.

  8. Mr. McKay--I responded to you on the page you posted on (The Megaversity Meme post).