Princeton Takes a Stand on Free Speech

Our university campuses are now islands of oppression in a sea of freedom.”—Abigail Thernstrom, 1990

So say many critics of our colleges, and, alas, in many cases correctly.  Here are the hallmarks of today’s college campus:

  • The implementation of hate speech codes
  • The stultifying strictures of political correctness
  • The greatly expanded notions of verbal harassment
  • The absence of right-of-center viewpoints among the faculty and high-level administrators
  • The disruption of talks given  by those on the  wrong side of issues like gay marriage and affirmative action
  • The denial of the most elementary rights of due process to students accused of sexual misconduct
  • The overt indoctrination of mandatory attendance at diversity orientation and sexual harassment assemblies

Amidst all such developments colleges and universities today are often highly politicized arenas in which students are required to check their free speech rights at the college gates

While civil libertarians and defenders of our First Amendment freedoms sometimes exaggerate the harms that they see, they are not wrong when they single out America’s colleges and universities for special rebuke.  It is largely because of the egregious situation they describe that organizations like FIRE and the Minding the Campus website are kept in business — doing yeoman’s work to provide a countervailing force to the stultifying atmosphere and outright repression of free speech found on so many of our campuses.

What Universities Could Be

The situation is particularly lamentable when one considers the high hopes once raised for the social role of universities in a democratic society.  Karl Mannheim, the Hungarian-born sociologist of a century ago, believed that modern universities should become places where broad-minded intellectuals holding diverse views on the many contentious social, political, and religious issues of the day.  The goal was to come together to mutually enrich and expand the understanding of each other’s alternative perspective and arrive at a more comprehensive truth about the nature of the issues at hand. Like John Stuart Mill, Mannheim believed that controversial public policy issues are usually multi-faceted and that the human mind naturally tends toward one-sidedness.

Mill’s On Liberty stated the basic idea with its author’s characteristic clarity: “Truth, in the practical concerns of life,” Mill wrote, “is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness.”  In politics, morality, religion and other areas outside of mathematics and natural science, Mill believed, “popular opinions … are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth.  They are a part of the truth; sometimes a greater, sometimes a smaller part, but exaggerated, distorted, and disjointed from the truths by which they ought to be accompanied and limited.  Heretical opinions …are generally some of these suppressed and neglected truths.”  Mill continued, “Such being the partial character of prevailing opinions, even when resting on a true foundation, every opinion, which embodies somewhat of the portion of truth which the common opinion omits ought to be considered precious, with whatever amount of error and confusion that truth may be blended.”

In England during Mill’s time, rather than finding its home in universities, vibrant intellectual discourse was typically carried on in highbrow journals and learned societies (think of the Westminster Review and the Royal Society). Ideas were promoted mostly by freewheeling thinkers and virtuoso intellectuals (Bentham, Ricardo, Darwin, James Mill, etc.) rather than Oxford or Cambridge dons.  Some today would see parallels to the contemporary American scene, with much of the best discussion on issues of politics, religion, and morality taking place outside the universities in think tanks such as Brookings, Heritage, Cato, AEI, the Manhattan Institute and the like.  But however important institutions outside our universities may be, there is really no substitute for the potential that universities today can offer to achieve the high purpose that thinkers like Mannheim have ascribed to them,

Clarity and Force

In my time at Princeton since the late 1980s, few developments have given me as much reason to rejoice as what happened on April 6th of this year at a general meeting of the faculty.  Presided over by the university’s president Christopher Eisgruber, the faculty passed, with little or no opposition, a magnificent statement on the university’s commitment to freedom of speech.  The statement is a model of both clarity and force, and was patterned after a similar statement adopted by the University of Chicago last year.  Here is the Princeton statement in full:

Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.  Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University, the University fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the University community “to discuss any problem that presents itself.

Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.  Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.

The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish.  The University may restrict expression that violates the law that falsely defames a specific individual that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.  In addition, the University may reasonably regulate time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University.  But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.

In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.  Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.

As a corollary to the University’s commitment to protect and promote free expression, members of the University community must also act in conformity with the principle of free expression.  Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.  To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

Princeton’s version of the Chicago resolution was proposed to the faculty by Sergiu Klainerman, a professor in the mathematics department. “Although academic freedom is one of the university’s most basic principles,” the Klainerman letter began, “its meaning and significance often tend to fade over time.” The letter continued:

Every so often, then, it becomes crucial to reaffirm the importance of freedom of expression on our campus.  It is with this thought in mind that the University of Chicago recently published a report heartily reasserting its commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the university community. Several of us representing various scholarly disciplines at Princeton are joining together to propose that our university endorse the principles of the Chicago report.

The signers of the letter were disproportionately drawn from the STEM fields (particularly mathematics, physics, and computer science), but there were also among the endorsers many from social science and humanities departments.  I emailed Klainerman after the vote and asked why he sent the letter and whether he saw any specific threats to free expression on the campus. Instead of singling out a specific group, he said he “would rather point to a broad collective forgetfulness about the meaning of free speech on colleges and universities.

The editorial board of the Daily Princetonian hailed the new statement on free speech and urged the university to do more:

We suggest the University go one-step further and wholly replace the existing free speech code in the guidebook with the new statement.

The current code bears a “red light” designation from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, due to policies that “both clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech.” The present language allows for University sanctions against an individual whose verbal behavior “demeans” or “intimidates” another.

Here, as in many behavior codes, Princeton’s language of sensitivity dilutes the insistence on free speech. The university may well follow the editorial board’s suggestion, but for now, the faculty letter is an impressive win for free speech.

The faculty declaration became significant almost immediately after its passage as a controversy emerged in the second week of April over a skit performed by a campus group calling itself Urban Congo that was widely perceived as demeaning to Africa and Africans.  There were calls on social media to have the group officially reprimanded or disband, but there was also considerable support for a criticize-but-don’t-censor position.

One columnist for the Prince, who sympathized for those offended by the Urban Congo skit, nevertheless offered some practical advice about what to do about the situation that did not involve censorship.  “Free speech doesn’t mean that students harmed by others have no recourse except for a thicker skin,” the student columnist wrote. “If Urban Congo offended you, tell them why; tell other students why they’re wrong; ask your classmates to boycott or condemn the show.  Use your free speech against theirs.  Change the attitudes of your classmates; don’t police their behavior.”

Let’s hope attitudes like this prevail on other college campuses and that declarations like those of the Chicago and Princeton faculty become the new reigning norm.


  • Russell K. Nieli

    Russell K. Nieli is a Senior Preceptor in Princeton University's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, and a Lecturer in Princeton's Politics Department. He is the author of "Wounds That Will Not Heal: Affirmative Action and Our Continuing Racial Divide."

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