At Princeton, a Racial Reckoning and a Free Speech Battle

by  Julia A. Seymour and Nathan Harden


In 2015, Princeton University became the second higher-education institution to sign the University of Chicago Statement supporting campus free speech. Yet, five years later, Princeton professor Keith E. Whittington wrote that the university stood “on the front lines” of the battle over speech. Those battle lines were drawn this summer by students and faculty demanding the adoption of “anti-racist” policies, which some on campus say run counter to free speech and open inquiry.

“The faculty were willing to write a commitment to academic freedom into the university’s governing documents in 2015 – but now, in 2020, they are being asked to carve out a substantial exception to that principle,” Whittington wrote for RealClearPolitics in August.

Princeton ranked just 29th in the 2020 College Free Speech Rankings, an ambitious survey of nearly 20,000 students at 55 schools conducted by RealClearEducation, research firm College Pulse, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). When Princeton’s conservative students ranked the school, it dropped to 42nd. It ranked 47th on ideological diversity and earned a “red” designation from FIRE, indicating a restrictive speech code.

The survey showed that many Princeton students censor themselves in classrooms and social settings. Seventy-six percent said that they would be somewhat or very uncomfortable expressing unpopular views on social media. Fifty-two percent indicated that they would be somewhat or very uncomfortable disagreeing with a professor.

A Racial Reckoning
The two most difficult subjects to discuss at Princeton were Israel/Palestine issues and transgender issues. Affirmative action and race weren’t far behind.

Rebekah Adams, a senior and president of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC), a student group committed to defending free speech and civil dialogue, told RealClearEducation that many students fear speaking freely will bring academic repercussions such as lower grades and “social ostracization.”

Adams says she knows students who were “socially ruined” for voicing their views. One had lost his internship, she said, for signing onto a POCC letter responding to students’ antiracism policy demands.

In June, as the Black Lives Matter movement swept the country, controversy over race emerged on campus. Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber issued a statement calling on the Princeton community to “confront [the] realities and legacy of racism” at the university. The statement prompted the Department of Education to open an investigation into Princeton’s “admitted racism.”

On the same day that Eisgruber issued his call to confront racism at the university, a group of students released an open letter urging immediate “anti-racism” actions, including curriculum changes, hiring more racially diverse faculty, mandatory anti-racism training for faculty, public renunciation and removal of images of President Woodrow Wilson, commitment to a reparations initiative, and more. The school complied with the call to strip Wilson’s name from its graduate school for public policy.

The POCC then released a letter saying that the “vast majority of claims and demands made by these students amounts to a concerted siege of free thought at Princeton.”

Faculty Divided
In July, hundreds of Princeton faculty and staff replied to Eisgruber’s request to confront the university’s “legacy of racism” with a letter detailing four dozen demands to “block the mechanisms that have allowed systemic racism to work, visibly and invisibly, in Princeton’s operations.” These included a call for a faculty committee to “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.”

In response, Princeton classics professor Joshua Katz published a “declaration of independence” disagreeing with some of the calls to action from the faculty petition. He warned that many of the proposals “would lead to civil war on campus” and noted that a disciplinary process already existed to address faculty use of slurs or documentable racial bias – thus, there was no need for the “outrageous” faculty committee to police colleagues’ research.

Katz also criticized a former campus group, the Black Justice League, calling it a “local terrorist organization” for intimidating students who disagreed with their demands. A backlash followed. Leaders of the classics department criticized Katz. The editorial board of The Daily Princetonian decried his op-ed as part of Princeton’s “long history of racism” and denounced the school’s “hardline free speech policy.

President Eisgruber chimed in, too, calling Katz’s words “irresponsible.” Only later did Eisgruber clarify that the professor would not be “censored or sanctioned.”

Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, has written widely about the need to protect intellectual freedom in academia. In an essay this summer, he cited Eisgruber’s response to Katz’s essay as heartening proof that the system at the university is working. “Princeton, by declining to investigate and punish speech that the university’s president himself regards as offensive and even irresponsible, passed the test,” George wrote. “The university has honored—and thereby reaffirmed—its commitment to free speech and robust discussion.”

Not everyone on campus agrees with George’s assessment. Adams worries that incidents like the response to the July faculty letter might produce a chilling effect on speech, making some students think, “Maybe I shouldn’t really say much,” while emboldening other students, who sense the university leadership is behind them, to speak up even more – and possibly even try to silence those who disagree.

Princeton is living proof that maintaining a culture of free speech takes more than signing a statement affirming student and faculty rights of expression – it requires ongoing efforts to meet challenges to free expression whenever they arise.

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 Julia A. Seymour and Nathan Harden are investigative reporters for RealClearInvestigations.








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