The dorm that cried wolf

The College, above all things, should be a guarantor of fire safety. Or so the thinking seems to go in Hopkins Hall, from which lofty eminence President Schapiro and Dean Roseman have handed down their latest pronouncement on the minute details of student life: the smoking ban.

Supporters of the new ban, which prohibits the smoking of cigarettes in all dorms at Williams and relegates lit cigarettes to 25 feet or more from residential buildings, generally make two arguments: that the ban is beneficial to the community’s health, and that it reduces the risk of fire. The first statement is well-intentioned, if eerily invasive, the second is simply ridiculous.

No serious person would argue that smoking cigarettes isn’t harmful. It certainly is. But why shouldn’t consenting adults be free to do themselves harm? Is it really the place of some higher authority – in this case Morty and Dean Roseman – to decide what we do in our own homes? Because that’s really what our dorm rooms are: by giving us de facto (if not de jure) possession of a room for the academic year, the College grants us the implicit right to exercise a kind of limited sovereignty over it. After all, Buildings and Grounds (B&G) doesn’t prohibit us from choosing certain posters or rearranging our furniture – this is because Williams is supposed to mirror a free society and free societies don’t regulate the personal lives of their citizens. Moreover, we are allowed – not officially, but in actuality – to drink in these rooms; if this doesn’t argue for a student’s right of personal sovereignty over his or her dorm, what does? The College has granted students a sort of “unspoken freedom” to disobey the alcohol laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts by looking the other way whenever we do – just so long as the “crime” takes place in our rooms or suites instead of in the public sphere. This implies, then, that students have over their abodes a special sovereignty, roughly equivalent to the owner’s rights inherent in private property. From the College’s various actions and pronouncements, it would seem we wield effective control over our dwelling-spaces – except if we were to light a cigarette. It hardly seems consistent to prohibit one lethal drug (nicotine) while allowing another (alcohol) to flourish. Lovers of Bacchus beware: all it takes is a little slippery-slope reasoning to deprive you of your beer, wine or liquor.

But what about second hand smoke’s harmful influence on others, not just the smoker? Isn’t that a legitimate reason to impose a ban?

Well, yes, to an extent it is, and for this reason I can’t oppose the ban as baseless. On the contrary, its base is strong; bettering us seems to be the goal. And it’s a great goal to have, to better a people – but it’s also a profoundly disturbing and dangerous one. The object of government should never be to “improve” the people, but rather to protect their rights. However, this doesn’t seem to be the Schapiro administration’s intention – instead, it seems interested in making us better, and if our freedoms begin to slowly erode, so be it, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. The administration’s attacks on our small liberties began last spring semester, when, lusting after a chimerical residential “diversity”, the new, more restrictive housing rules were instituted. And now smoking is banned. It’s not that smoking isn’t bad – it is, but it’s neither Schapiro nor Roseman’s place to say so.

Now, as to the second claim, that this ban will make us safer from death by fire, consider this: as any resident of Mission Hall can tell you, fire drills have pierced our mornings, punctuated our days, made miserable our nights. If the College were serious about fire safety, it would install an alarm system that didn’t go off so often that people have begun simply staying in their rooms at the sound of the alarm’s offensive braying. A friend has rightly called Mission “the dorm that cried wolf;” so frequent are its protestations that we’re all going to die. If the administration wants to improve fire safety, it certainly has an odd way of doing it: on the one hand, its alarms reduce fire readiness so that in an actual blaze a good portion of the sophomore class would burn; on the other (as my own CC Rep, Dave Roth ’05, has astutely argued), they have given people a greater incentive to cover their smoke detectors with bags rather than tramping outside for a cigarette (if they think this rule is enforceable, they’re insane). A population that no longer believes its fire alarms is close to describing the reality in Mission. Combining this with a silly law that gives students a reason to make fire equipment less useful, and one has a situation you’d think Hopkins Hall would seek to avoid at all costs.

But in the Schapiro presidency, logic is turned upside down.