He Criticized My Views! He Said My Political Views Are Wrong, Here Are the Right Ones! He Let Me Know That He Knew What I Was Up To!

I'm not an expert on the Dartmouth governance debates, and for all I know there might be something wrong with what the Administration there is doing. But some of the arguments this post (which I mention because it was linked to at InstaPundit) struck me as not terribly persuasive:

Claims of Censorship and Intimidation at Dartmouth

This morning’s edition of The Dartmouth carries a worrisome story by reporter Rebekah Rombom....

As the Association of Alumni prepares to vote on a new proposed constitution this fall, heated debate has persisted throughout many sectors of the Dartmouth community. Factions on both sides participate, with weblogs becoming an important media for political dialogue.

The website voxclamantisindeserto.org vocally criticizes the proposed constitution and other administrative affairs. A recent alumnus heavily involved with the website is alleging that he was intimidated in private meetings with members of the Alumni Relations administration because of his views on the proposed alumni constitution.

Nick Stork ‘06 issued a public statement on the website accusing Vice President for Alumni Relations David Spalding ‘76 of intimidating him and criticizing his views during a June 7 meeting in Blunt Alumni Center.

According to Stork, he went to Blunt for a morning meeting with Spalding and Assistant Director of Young Alumni and Student Programs Rex Morey ‘99 to make up a missed lunch for Greek leaders days before.

When he entered the room, he noticed a BlitzMail message concerning the constitution he had sent to members of his fraternity, Gamma Delta Chi, lying on top of a stack of papers in the conference room.

Later in the interview, Spalding neither confirmed nor denied that he had a copy of a Stork’s BlitzMail message that was not sent specifically to him.

“I don’t recall having a private e-mail that he sent to his Gamma Delt brothers,” Spalding said.

Stork alleges that in the meeting, Spalding advocated for the newly proposed alumni constitution, a reversal of his constant dedication to neutrality on the subject.

“I think effectively what he did during the meeting was to say: your political views are wrong, here are the right ones,” Stork said, referring to anti-constitution posts on voxclamantisindeserto.org.

“I think when someone tries to let you know that they know what you’re up to, there is a serious intimidation there.” ...

Harsh — the administrator criticized a student's views. He apparently effectively said "your political views are wrong, here are the right ones." He communicated to a vocal critic of the administration that he was paying attention to people's criticisms of the administration.

I take it that the student might have been somewhat worried that the administrator would somehow affect the closing days of his school career (the student was about to graduate), but it would take someone with a pretty poor view of Dartmouth to think that there's that much of a chance that the administrator would, say, urge professors to unfairly lower the student's grades or some such. (Top universities, to my knowledge, are known for leaving the individual grading decisions to the professors, except to the extent that they leave them to TAs.) And if this was the student's view of Dartmouth, then I'm surprised he had spoken out in the first instance, since the administration could (if it's willing to break all the rules) retaliate against a student whether or not an administrator decides to personally argue with the student. All the evidence suggests is that the administration is willing to talk back to students who they think express unsound views. Not a lot to build a case of intimidation and censorship (much less, as the blogger later says, "indecent tactics"), it seems to me.

Some of the other items in the post might be more troubling, depending on the facts; the post discusses the administration's statements to another student who works for a Dartmouth-affiliated charity, which might be proper or might not be, depending on the facts. The post also argues that the administration has been disingenuous in its public comments; I can't speak to that, but in any event that claim strikes me as separate from the claim of censorship and intimidation-by-criticism. One might also argue that the administrator might have been rude or petty in his actions (as opposed to censoring or intimidating or indecent), though we'd need a good deal more information to evaluate that, it seems to me.

The post also suggests that the administration might have gotten the e-mail to the fraternity brothers by monitoring student e-mail accounts — this would be troubling, but a more probable explanation, I suspect, is that one of the many recipients forwarded the message on, and it eventually got forwarded to the administrators. The post proceeds to argue that even this explanation is troubling, because "it means that a recipient of Nick’s e-mails felt that the proper thing to do with a piece of political expression with which he disagreed was to surreptitiously forward it to a College administrator, whom he or she expected would take corrective action. This is not the mark of a campus with an atmosphere fostering of free speech. It is the mark of the precise opposite: chill." But if the "corrective action" is the administrator's "criticizing [the speaker's] views" and saying "your political views are wrong, here are the right ones," that sounds to me like free speech — something even administrators may sometimes be entitled to exercise.

I mention this partly because I've seen similar arguments before in other contexts. Sometimes (perhaps here) they are simply inartful representations of legitimate grievances — for instance, perhaps there really was something more being done to Mr. Stork than "criticizing his views." But sometimes they represent the view that freedom of speech means freedom to speak without criticism, without people tracking what you're saying and faulting you for it, without the "chill" that comes from the possibility that your speech will lead to public disagreement and condemnation. That's not what freedom of speech can be or should be.

UPDATE: For an example of the broader phenomenon I describe, see the incident described in this post from last March. The incidents are of course not identical, but both seem to me to exhibit the "how dare [proessors/administrators] criticize students, 'demean[ their] ideas,' and 'dishonor[ their] perspective'" argument.

UPDATE: I initially misread the story as suggesting that Nick Stork had been an alumnus at the time of the conversation (the trouble with blogging from bed late in the evening); I now realize (thanks to a commenter) that he was an about-to-graduate student. I've updated the post accordingly, but I think my argument is still sound.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Dartmouth:
  2. Probable Lying at Dartmouth.--
  3. Intimidation at Dartmouth?
  4. He Criticized My Views! He Said My Political Views Are Wrong, Here Are the Right Ones! He Let Me Know That He Knew What I Was Up To!