Princeton Students Form Much-Needed Free Speech Advocacy Group

By December 10, 2012

Students at Princeton University have formed a new group "to encourage campus-wide conversation and protect student speech," The Daily Princetonian reported yesterday. The group, called Princetonians for Individual Rights in Education (PIRE for short; no affiliation with FIRE, although we are flattered that we were reportedly part of the inspiration for the group), was started by Vivienne Chen and Elan Kugelmass, two members of Princeton’s class of 2014.

Such a group is sorely needed at Princeton, which makes lofty commitments to free speech but then places serious restrictions on students’ expressive rights (such as prohibiting speech or expression that "demeans" or "injures" another student). As a result of this and other policies, Princeton earns FIRE’s poorest, "red light" rating.

The group already has its first controversy to address: Late last month, outgoing Princeton president Shirley Tilghman wrote a letter to the Daily Princetonian urging the paper to prohibit anonymous comments from readers. Tilghman argued that "[a]nonymous debate is no debate at all, especially in a university setting. All too often the debate sinks to the standard of the lowest common denominator, which discourages further debate rather than catalyzes it." But as PIRE founder Vivienne Chen argues, anonymous speech serves an important purpose on campus— particularly a campus whose speech codes almost certainly have a chilling effect on student speech: 

"Anonymity does serve some purposes in giving people space to say what they want to say," Chen said. "And it’s not just about shirking off responsibility. It’s about the fact that some people’s identities are so stigmatized that they can’t possibly express themselves, so anonymity is a way of giving them that space," she explained.

It’s also important to mention that anonymous and pseudonymous speech has an important place in American history (as does Princeton, as a temporary home for the Continental Congress).

FIRE has been arguing for years that Princeton must live up to its free speech commitments by abolishing its speech codes and respecting students’ right to free speech. Just last fall, FIRE Chairman Harvey Silverglate and I—both Princeton alums (‘64 and ‘99, respectively)—wrote an essay in the Princeton Alumni Weekly arguing that Princeton’s policies are inconsistent with the university’s pronouncement that "[f]ree speech and peaceable assembly are basic requirements of the University as a center for free inquiry and the search for knowledge and insight."

Hopefully the addition of student voices to the call for greater free speech rights will spur Princeton to action. We welcome this new ally in the fight for free speech on campus and we stand ready to be of help in any way we can.

Schools: Princeton University