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Monday, Apr 22, 2024

COLUMN Middle Ground

Author: Fahim Ahmed

The greatest virtue of democracy is the principle of freedom and liberty that it staunchly defends. And that freedom traverses from chanting slogans against the World Bank in Washington, D.C., to demonstrating against oil drilling in Alaska, to protesting Ari Fleischer at Middlebury College. Arguably, such actions may not be the most optimal way to pursue the greater objectives of the activists. But still, democracy protects our right to do the 'wrong' thing, to the extent that our actions do not infringe upon the rights of others.
Ben Gore '04 in "The Politics of Complacency" (The Middlebury Campus, Nov. 13, 2002) wrote of the rapid erosion of democracy in the national political landscape that may necessitate "more militant tactics" by the activists united against the war on terrorism, corporate malfeasance and oil drilling in Alaska. A more subtle erosion of democracy, however, is happening closer to the place that we call home that may require less "militant," but nevertheless more informed, action.
Since early this fall, the College administration has been exploring the option of prohibiting the smoking of cigarettes in dormitories and within a certain range of building entrances. As part of an initiative supported by the Commons Administration Office and the Office of Health and Wellness Education, Mariah McKechnie, Residential Systems coordinator, submitted a proposal to this effect that prompted the creation of a nine-member student task force. The task force will prepare a smoking policy, which will then be presented to the administration for College-wide adoption. (See "Initiative May Leave Smokers Seeking New Spaces to Light Up," The Middlebury Campus, Oct 2., 2002 and a page one of this week's issue.)
The policy review, undoubtedly, has been initiated in the interest of the health and welfare of the student body and the College community. Certainly, the supporters of the proposal —within the administration and in the student body — have acted on behalf of the right of non-smokers to a smoke-free environment as mandated in the Middlebury College Handbook (p. 38). However, the same statutes reserve the right for students to smoke in the privacy of their own rooms, and outside of buildings. The proposed outline, if adopted as policy, will lead to a virtual ban on smoking in campus by making it extremely inconvenient, if not impossible, for students to smoke, especially during the cold winters. As such, it would severely impinge upon the rights and liberties of mature adults undertaking a valid and lawful action.
The issue of the smoking policy has been approached by the College administration in a manner best described as a cavalier disdain toward the opinions of a vast segment of the student body. That the College-endorsed task force is in fact financially sponsored by the American Cancer Society (the students on the task force receive a stipend from the society), demonstrates that a comprehensive ban on smoking is but a foregone conclusion. However, if the administration is guilty of being premeditated, we, the student body are responsible for a charge far worse — apathy. Far too often, we get into the habit of raising a furor only after a decision has already been made, or a policy is already written. And that must change.
Smokers and non-smokers alike must take this opportunity to engage in a dialogue on the future of smoking at Middlebury College. The more we remove ourselves from this process, the more we relinquish the rights and liberties that democracy affords us.