Princeton Takes a Stand for Free Speech on Campus

Free speech censored

Much of the news regarding free speech on campus is enough to make anyone despair. Year after year more people and ideas are muzzled.

But some very heartening news of late comes from Princeton. Due largely to a new book promoting free speech by Princeton University political scientist Keith Whittington and the unusual support and campus-wide promotion of the book by Princeton’s president Chris Eisgruber, Princeton is now in the forefront of those American colleges and universities that have said “stop” to the onslaught of thuggish campus militants intent on shutting down free speech. This latest development comes on the heels of several other very positive developments on the free-speech front at Princeton.

Three years ago, in April of 2015, the governing board of the faculty at Princeton adopted the main body of what has come to be known as the Chicago Principles of free speech and free expression. Originally drawn up by a committee of the University of Chicago chaired by law professor Geoffrey R. Stone, these principles condemned the suppression of views no matter how “offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed [they may appear] by some or even by most members of the University community.”

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Princeton’s version of the Chicago Principles was proposed by mathematics professor Sergiu Klainerman and 60 faculty members of diverse political persuasions. Klainerman grew up in Communist-ruled Romania and observed first-hand how tyrannical power can be used to stifle important criticism and debate. He saw American colleges and universities being threatened by the same sort of intolerant forces that had ruled his homeland, and along with several other Princeton faculty members, was determined to halt the menacing developments he was witnessing in America.

Here is part of the statement adopted at the 2015 faculty meeting:

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 members of our community. … 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.

The statement adopted by the Princeton faculty was strongly worded and consistent with the civil libertarian ideals once so forcefully defended by organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (like other institutions with a substantial left-of-center clientele, the once august ACLU seems to have lost its zeal to defend speech which many of its members find troubling or offensive).  It is for the individual members of the university community themselves, and not for the university as a collective institution, the faculty statement declared, to make judgments as to whether particular speech is immoral, unwise or wrong-headed. And if negative judgments of this kind are made by individuals, the offending speech must not be suppressed. Rather, the critics and opponents of such speech are called upon to “openly and vigorously [contest] the ideas they oppose.” It is an essential part of the university’s educational mission, the statement concludes, to foster the ability of members of the university community “to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner.”

This spring Princeton reinforced the ideals behind the 2015 statement by adopting Professor Whittington’s Speak Freely as the freshmen pre-read sent free to all incoming first-year students who are expected to discuss it when they arrive at Princeton in September.

With his high-profile sponsorship of a book on free speech by an unabashed civil libertarian, Princeton’s president joins with people like Geoffrey Stone and Purdue University president Mitch Daniels in assuming national leadership in a movement to reaffirm the commitment of American institutions of higher learning to the highest ideals of free discussion, open debate, and the civilized exchange of conflicting viewpoints.

II

Keith Whittington is clearly alarmed at the changing attitudes towards free inquiry and freedom of expression on so many colleges and university campuses today.

“The generation raised in the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Whittington writes, “is shockingly indifferent to liberal democratic values.”

He references surveys documenting this change. “The current crisis of free speech on college campuses,” Whittington declares, “is both a symptom and cause of a larger threat to the maintenance of liberal democracy itself.”

Some colleges and universities in the U.S. he believes, are in danger of becoming shells of their former selves, “mere facades that camouflage a campus culture that has rejected liberal tolerance and free inquiry in favor of dogma and indoctrination.” Speak Freely is Whittington’s carefully reasoned protest against this trend, and despite the sustained passion that ultimately drives it, the book never exceeds the bounds of cool rationality, fundamental decency towards opponents, and informed common-sense. A provocateur Whittington is not.

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Whittington describes himself at the beginning of his study as harboring an “inner Texas” populism (he grew up in Texas and did his undergraduate work at the University of Texas at Austin) which is at variance with the leftward movement that seems to have captured so many American universities at an ever-accelerating pace since the late 1960s. By the standards of American public opinion outside the universities, his views on most public policy issues, including free-speech on university campuses, would probably be considered mainstream – perhaps moderately center-right.

But his views clearly clash with those of much of the powerful campus Left as it manifests itself among both leftist students and radical faculty. To use the expression popular in the Cold War struggle against Marxist-Leninism, Speak Freely is a book that tries to recapture a Vital Center.

Whittington is a keen student of John Stuart Mill and adopts Mill’s basic understanding of the importance of open discussion and debate as the only way to arrive at truth in most areas of inquiry. And the single-minded and enduring pursuit of truth, he believes, together with its dissemination to students, is the raison d’être for modern research universities like Berkeley and Princeton. Such a conception of a university, with the priority given to discovery and free-wheeling debate, is relatively modern, Whittington acknowledges, having first been developed and perfected in the 19th century by the large state universities in Germany.

This conception, he explains, was eagerly accepted by an influential group of academic reformers in America in the early years of the 20th century, who wanted to move beyond what they saw as an excessive devotion to inculcating accepted dogmas, rather than exploring the world in its many dimensions in the spirit of discovery and a quest for truth. According to the prescriptions of the reformers, he explains, “the core value of the modern American university would be free inquiry, not indoctrination.”

With such views, one might think Whittington is an unrelenting foe of the demand for “safe-spaces” where members of various demographic and theme groups on campus can be sheltered from what they take to be deeply offensive ideas voiced in their presence. Whittington, however, offers a qualified support for at least some types of restricted-membership groups where the members share commonalities of experience and beliefs that give them a sense of comfort and security. “There is nothing wrong with students and faculty wanting the ability to disengage from intellectual battles and seek refuge among like-minded friends and colleagues,” Whittington writes.

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“When students call for hospitable spaces for racial minorities, religious minorities, sexual identity minorities, and women, we should recognize the value that such space can provide,” he explains.  “The call for affinity housing or a single-sex lounge,” he continues, “should be no more troubling than the presence of a fraternity, political club, or Jewish center on campus.”

Students of all descriptions, Whittington believes, “deserve to have a place of respite from the stresses of university life, or indeed daily life.” It would be an emotionally exhausting environment, he adds, “if it were not possible to break bread with other members of the community without being forced into argument.” He warns, however, that while the nurturing of “thick bonds of solidarity with like-minded fellows” may be an important aspect of college life for many, it must never be allowed to become “the primary orientation of the university as a whole.” That orientation must look forward to drawing people out of their comfort zone – out of their “safe spaces of thick fellowship” — to confront others with different ideas, perspectives, and understandings of the world in ways that will enrich the intellectual experience of all involved.

Comfort zones of thick fellowship must never be encouraged to turn into permanent isolating ghettos in which students are sheltered from the value of intellectual challenges and enlivening exchange of ideas.  Such isolation, Whittington believes, would be a betrayal of the university’s “core mission of exposing students to the wide range of perspectives to be found in the world around them.”

III

Speak Freely goes into great detail about the obligations of institutions of higher learning to protect free speech and free expression against those who would obstruct or prohibit it. It provides a wealth of factual material about the many ways that open discussion and the communication of controversial ideas have been thwarted by activist students, partisan or cowardly administrators, and both trustees and wealthy outside donors with unusual influence on institutional policies.  Since the overwhelming majority of college faculty, administrators, and in some cases students nowadays lean politically to the left, it is not surprising that most of the examples of thwarted free-speech found in Whittington’s book are of ideas and viewpoints anathema to leftist sensibilities.

Under the guise of prohibiting “hate speech,” Whittington writes, administrators and students have shut down speakers “who want to advocate for Donald Trump, contend that immigration should be restricted, criticize the Black Lives Matter movement and its policy proposals, argue against progressive sexual mores, or posit that those accused of sexual assault on campus should be given a fair hearing.”

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Whittington offers an elaborate treatment of the anti-hate-speech movement.  In terms of American constitutional law, Whittington points out, “hate speech” is not one of the narrow categories of speech that is unprotected by the First Amendment (like physical threats, harassment, or “fighting words”). State-run universities are thus constitutionally obligated to protect most of what is often labeled “hate speech.” Americans, Whittington writes, “are not allowed to threaten each other with impunity, but they are free to express hatred toward one another.”

Unlike state-run institutions, however, private colleges and universities have greater freedom to restrict free-speech as they don’t trigger the “state action” requirement for constitutional protections under the 14th Amendment. So private institutions are legally allowed under most circumstances to prohibit or restrict what they deem to be “hate speech.” But the experience on campuses with hate-speech prohibitions has not been an encouraging one, Whittington observes.

“The label of ‘hate speech’,” he writes, “has always covered a vague and disparate set of offenses, opening the door to selective and abusive enforcement against controversial speakers and ideas at the whim of campus officials.” The anti-hate-speech movement, he says, was from its beginnings a movement aimed at suppressing disfavored arguments and ideas — one’s typically anathema to the campus Left.  It never embraced the idea of viewpoint neutrality or the marketplace of ideas.

“The idea that a hate speech exception would be applied strictly and stay limited flies in the face of our historical experience,” Whittington writes. “Once an official has been empowered to suppress speech, it is inevitable that good speech will be suppressed along with the bad, that the tools forged to punish worthless speech will be used to silence valuable speech as well.” Whittington rejects the idea, held it seems by many defenders of hate speech restrictions on campus, that “some ideas are too dangerous and enticing to be contemplated.”

While civility and mutual respect should be encouraged, such concerns should not be allowed to shut down speakers who espouse unpopular or even hateful ideas. “We gain the most for good ideas,” Whittington writes, “if we demonstrate why bad ideas are mistaken” and persuade people to that view, rather than censoring such ideas or prohibiting speakers to espouse them.

Whittington acknowledges that some campus speakers – he specifically mentions in this context the “Dangerous Faggot” Milo Yiannopoulos — are professional provocateurs, and should not be encouraged to speak on college campuses. They generate more heat than light, more visceral reaction than rational reflection. Such provocateurs, Whittington says, are “parasitic” on the free speech ideals Americans defend. Nevertheless, once invited, it does not speak well for a campus’s commitment to the open exchange of differing viewpoints if such speakers are shouted down, disinvited, or otherwise prohibited from speaking. Broad commitments to the free speech ideal sometimes require, Whittington believes, tolerance of some speech that may have little value. But students should always be free to hear what campus speakers have to say and make up their own minds as to whether what they hear is valuable or to be taken seriously.

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It is for the protection of the willing hearers on campus, more than for the rights or interests of the invited speakers, Whittington believes, that colleges and universities have a special obligation to protect campus speakers from those who would try to prevent the willing hearers from hearing the message the speaker has to convey. Colleges and universities have an obligation, he believes, to provide the necessary security to invited speakers and to punish students or others who would try to disrupt their talks or prevent interested parties from listening to them.

Whittington describes the disgraceful treatment of Charles Murray at Middlebury College in the spring of 2017 where a mob of student protesters not only made it impossible for Murray to deliver his prepared remarks on socio-economic polarization in America, but assaulted Allison Stanger, the Middlebury political science professor who invited Murray, and who as a result of the assault suffered a serious concussion and brain trauma that took months to heal.

Although Whittington doesn’t mention it, what the Middlebury mob revealed was the development in America of what the present writer has characterized elsewhere as a Spit-Viper Left, well represented by groups like Antifa, that far from being anti-fascist have taken over the modus operandi of the Italian Black Shirts and German Brown Shirts in the heyday of European Fascism. Only a Vital Center energized to do combat with the same dedication and power displayed by the free-speech-hating groups can our campuses remain true to the free-speech ideals that America at its best has long defended. Speaking Freely makes a major contribution to this effort. And because of people like Sergiu Klainerman, Chris Eisgruber, Robert P. George, Cornel West, and dozens of free-speech supporting Princeton faculty, Princeton University of late has shown its mettle in standing up to the bullying of the Spit-Viper Left and saying Enough!

IV

I have just one major criticism of Whittington’s book and it deals mainly with its lack of clarity in terms of distinguishing those educational institutions to which the proposed free- speech ideals he champions clearly apply and those to which applying them is not so clear. What Whittington says in defense of open discussion and debate, and the importance of maximum latitude for dissenting and even deeply offensive viewpoints is clearly applicable to modern, secular, research universities — and those liberal arts colleges patterned after them.

Institutions whose faculty members are highly trained specialists, working at the frontiers of knowledge in various fields to expand what we know and to convey that knowledge to students are the main target of his book. He acknowledges that some colleges and universities do not fit this description and that the free-speech ideals he examines and defends so exhaustively may not apply to them. But he mentions such exceptions and the rationale for them only in a few places and the reader can easily get the impression that all American colleges and universities should adopt the kind of free-speech regime recommended by the Chicago Principles.

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But should Brigham Young, Yeshiva University, Calvin College, the California Baptist University, Oral Roberts University, Liberty University, Bob Jones University, and the Franciscan University of Steubenville really try to pattern themselves after institutions like the University of Chicago, Amherst, or Brown? Whittington would – and does — say no, but he says it in so few places and in such a highly concessional tone that it is easy to forget that the American college and university scene, unlike that in, say, contemporary Germany (where all universities are state institutions) is a smorgasbord of diversity in which one size does not fit all.

At one point, Whittington mentions that until the latter part of the 19th century most American colleges and universities, rather than being research institutions, were devoted to imparting a “received wisdom” to their students, and the faculty was expected “to adhere to approved doctrine.” These institutions, he remarks, “were expected to be producers of doctrinally reliable preachers and finishing schools for the sons of the wealthy (and those who aspired to join their class).” But this is a distorted and demeaning way of characterizing the earliest colleges and universities in America and fails to recognize their true achievements.

Surely it is an inaccurate way of describing Princeton in the time of the presidency of someone like John Witherspoon (1768-1794) when Princeton was called the College of New Jersey. At that time all nine colonial colleges were headed by ordained Christian ministers, and the purpose of each was to turn out educated Christian gentlemen who would assume positions of leadership in the expanding new country as Christian lawyers, ministers, journalists, and statesmen.

The college president typically taught the senior-year course in applied Christian ethics, which was often seen as the crown of four years of education patterned in many ways after the medieval trivium and quadrivium (grammar, rhetoric and logic; arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). Primary aim of such education was not simply the imparting of knowledge and reasoning skills – important though these objectives were – but that of cultivating high morals, good character, a thorough understanding of the Bible and the Christian religion, and a life dedicated to, as Harvard College proclaimed in its original motto, Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae (Truth, Christ and Church).

One could hardly imagine a more serious purpose for colleges or universities than that undertaken by those in America from the earliest colonial era up to the immediate post-Civil War period. Princeton University retained its strong religious orientation, including compulsory daily chapel service for all its students, until the 1950s. American colleges and universities in an earlier period may not have achieved the high moral and religious goals they set for themselves, but in no time before the very late 19th and early 20th century could they be described as finishing schools for social climbers. Research universities they were not, but they had a purpose and a mission as noble and demanding as any modern, research-oriented college or university today.

And in America today there are increasing numbers of institutions that are convinced that the undergraduate instruction in most American colleges and universities is aimless and disorienting and seek to provide for their students the kind of religious-oriented liberal arts education that was once provided by the early Christian-oriented colleges in the time of James Madison and John Witherspoon.

Such institutions do not seek to be morally or religiously neutral and often contain in their mission statements the stated goal of turning out high-minded Christian, Jewish, or Mormon men and women, and creating a campus environment where students and faculty dedicated to such ideals can thrive. These institutions cannot thrive on the kind of principles that are so central to the running of a great research institution like the University of Chicago.

It may be a minor yet important criticism of Whittington’s otherwise outstanding book, to mention a need to stress, more than Whittington does, the pluralist nature of the American university and college system, and the impossibility of applying a one-size-fits-all paradigm of academic freedom, free-speech, and value-neutrality among the administrators, faculty, and students who choose to be part of institutions with a clearly defined religious mission. We might distinguish here Millian Institutions (patterned after John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty) from Newman Institutions (patterned after John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University). America surely has room for both. Although Whittington realizes this truth, his book needs to proclaim it more clearly.

Russell K. Nieli

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."

4 thoughts on “Princeton Takes a Stand for Free Speech on Campus

  1. I agree with Phillip Shen above. Either you accept the basic philosophical principle of free speech or you don’t. And free speech, unfortunately for Whittington, is not just things that are nice and civil and urbane according to your Anglo-Saxon sensibilities.

    Free speech in fact means Milo. It means other brash and bold Trump supporters like Katie Hopkins, Kanye, Alex Jones and Gavin McGinnis. It means guests who are loud and rude and outspoken. It meant Howard Stern and gangster rap music back in the ’90s. It meant comedians like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. Because, unlike “serious political commentators,” comedians don’t lie. That’s what makes them exciting and thought-provoking and dangerous all at the same time.

    So let’s bring comedy back to college campuses! A lot of prominent comedians in fact say that they refuse to play college campuses because they are tired of the puritanical, hostile environment that they encounter. So let’s start by inviting Milo back to Berkeley. Let Milo give the talk that we was never able to give!

  2. I’m sorry, but if Whittington claims Princeton supports free speech, and then a few paragraphs down says this: “Whittington acknowledges that some campus speakers – he specifically mentions in this context the “Dangerous F****t” Milo Yiannopoulos — are professional provocateurs, and should not be encouraged to speak on college campuses”, then he’s not really for free speech.

    This brings us back to square one, where if the College Republicans want to invite someone like Milo (or Gavin McInnes, or Lauren Southern, Charles Murray, etc), then such invitations are at the whim of the leadership board which can refuse such invitations in the first place. Nothing has changed.

    The character assassination of Milo is also telling. It’s true he’s a provocateur, but he has probably repelled more college students in his 2016 tour than any other speaker I know of. It’s very disingenuous to say that what he offers aren’t topics that are at the heart of what is being debated about in the public sphere — because he does do that, and yes, in a crude provocative way. But that makes him no different than inviting someone like George Carlin or Lenny Bruce to campus.

    1. I hope that this comment will appear. I tried to post yesterday, but nothing appeared.

      I agree with Phillip above. This is yet another example of Milo character assassination. Milo has been accused of being a “white nationalist” when his beloved husband is black. Accused of “advocating for pedophilia” when he was a VICTIM of pedophilia who had the courage to tell his story. Now we have further attacks on Milo by someone who probably (based on the way he talks) doesn’t even know who Milo is.

      What really bothers me here is the way that Keith Whittington considers himself the ultimate arbiter or all things. What if a bunch of students want to invite a comedian/provocateur like Milo? Too bad. Because Keith Whittington doesn’t like Milo. What if a bunch of people in the local taxpaying community want to see Milo? Too bad. Because Keith Whittington doesn’t like Milo.

      But who in the world is Keith Whittington, and why does he think that his own personal opinion should override the will of students and local members of the community?

      Let the students decide and stay out of it, Keith Whittington. Because you might also not like D.H. Lawrence or Stravinsky or Walt Whitman or gangster rap or Howard Stern. You are allowed to have personal tastes like that. What you as one random person are NOT ALLOWED to do is dictate to the entire tuition-paying student body what they should or should not be allowed to see.

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