The hidden scandal of Princeton’s speech code

September 11, 2008

Over the past three years at Princeton, every time I saw another student publication at my door, a demonstration in front of Frist, or heard of our administration’s continued support for the academic freedom of Peter Singer, I became more confident that our marketplace of ideas was alive and well.

I was also impressed by the appropriately restrained reaction on the part of the administration during both of the major free speech controversies that have occurred while I have been a student. First, The Daily Princetonian’s 2007 op-ed parodying then-Yale freshman Jian Li resulted in nothing more from the University than a letter to the editor. Second, the JuicyCampus debacle was addressed by Class of 2010 president Connor Diemand-Yauman working with Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students Thomas Dunne on the "Own What You Think" campaign. It appeared to me that Princeton had the utmost respect for its students’ free speech.

I was therefore surprised when I began my work this summer at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an institution founded by Alan Charles Kors ’64 and Harvey Silverglate ’64, to find that Princeton University had been given the worst rating possible in FIRE’s "Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource" database.

What’s wrong with Princeton’s policies? A number of provisions in Princeton’s 2008-09 "Rights, Rules, Responsibilities" handbook restrict freedom of speech: most notably in the section on "Respect for Others."

Princeton’s harassment definitions do not meet the standard set by the Supreme Court that requires that speech be both "severe" and "pervasive" (not just one or the other) as well as "objectively offensive," to qualify as hostile environment harassment in an educational context. The really troubling policy, however, is that a student can be subject to University disciplinary sanctions if their "abusive" behavior "demeans" another because of their "beliefs." Leaving legal precedent aside, this doesn’t appear to be a terrible policy. The problem is that with such a vague standard, the administration has the power to punish speech that should be allowed. For example, if I got into a heated debate and called someone a "stupid idiot" for believing, or not believing, in the justice of capital punishment, I could technically be punished by the University.

One might argue that, given the University’s strong record of protecting the rights of its students, it is unlikely that such a policy would ever be enforced in such a way. There is, however, an alarming trend by colleges across the country to punish or preemptively prohibit the kind of "offensive" speech covered in this policy. This trend behooves us to be wary even at Princeton. In 2002, the Harvard Harbus ran a cartoon criticizing the university’s computer system, which led to the resignation of the paper’s editor in chief after what he called "personal intimidation and threats" from Harvard officials. In 2006, NYU administrators prohibited the Objectivist Club from holding an open forum to discuss the Danish Mohammed Cartoons. In 2006 and then again in 2007, Tufts administrators filed harassment charges against the student newspaper, The Primary Source. The first charge came after the newspaper printed a parody of race-based admission policies at Tufts, and the second came after the newspaper ran a satirical advertisement in response to "Islamic Awareness Week." With these precedents of abuse at our nation’s best colleges, my faith in Princeton only comforts me so much.

It is true that Princeton, as a private university, is not bound by the First Amendment, like public universities are. But it would be unfortunate if we didn’t enjoy the rights legally guaranteed to students two stops up the Northeast Corridor Line at Rutgers University. Princeton’s marketplace of ideas should be the most robust in the nation.

Regardless of whether the code will be enforced anytime soon, it remains an embarrassment to anyone associated with the University who values individual liberty. It sends the message that feelings are to be protected over freedom and undermines the spirit of free inquiry that the University should embrace. I call on the administration to eliminate its speech code by fully aligning Princeton’s policies with First Amendment jurisprudence to confirm that it stands behind its students and their rights.

The hidden scandal of Princeton’s speech code

September 11, 2008

by Michael Davidson

The Daily Princetonian

Over the past three years at Princeton, every time I saw another student publication at my door, a demonstration in front of Frist, or heard of our administration’s continued support for the academic freedom of Peter Singer, I became more confident that our marketplace of ideas was alive and well.

I was also impressed by the appropriately restrained reaction on the part of the administration during both of the major free speech controversies that have occurred while I have been a student. First, The Daily Princetonian’s 2007 op-ed parodying then-Yale freshman Jian Li resulted in nothing more from the University than a letter to the editor. Second, the JuicyCampus debacle was addressed by Class of 2010 president Connor Diemand-Yauman working with Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students Thomas Dunne on the “Own What You Think” campaign. It appeared to me that Princeton had the utmost respect for its students’ free speech.

I was therefore surprised when I began my work this summer at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an institution founded by Alan Charles Kors ’64 and Harvey Silverglate ’64, to find that Princeton University had been given the worst rating possible in FIRE’s “Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource” database.

What’s wrong with Princeton’s policies? A number of provisions in Princeton’s 2008-09 “Rights, Rules, Responsibilities” handbook restrict freedom of speech: most notably in the section on “Respect for Others.”

Princeton’s harassment definitions do not meet the standard set by the Supreme Court that requires that speech be both “severe” and “pervasive” (not just one or the other) as well as “objectively offensive,” to qualify as hostile environment harassment in an educational context. The really troubling policy, however, is that a student can be subject to University disciplinary sanctions if their “abusive” behavior “demeans” another because of their “beliefs.” Leaving legal precedent aside, this doesn’t appear to be a terrible policy. The problem is that with such a vague standard, the administration has the power to punish speech that should be allowed. For example, if I got into a heated debate and called someone a “stupid idiot” for believing, or not believing, in the justice of capital punishment, I could technically be punished by the University.

One might argue that, given the University’s strong record of protecting the rights of its students, it is unlikely that such a policy would ever be enforced in such a way. There is, however, an alarming trend by colleges across the country to punish or preemptively prohibit the kind of “offensive” speech covered in this policy. This trend behooves us to be wary even at Princeton. In 2002, the Harvard Harbus ran a cartoon criticizing the university’s computer system, which led to the resignation of the paper’s editor in chief after what he called “personal intimidation and threats” from Harvard officials. In 2006, NYU administrators prohibited the Objectivist Club from holding an open forum to discuss the Danish Mohammed Cartoons. In 2006 and then again in 2007, Tufts administrators filed harassment charges against the student newspaper, The Primary Source. The first charge came after the newspaper printed a parody of race-based admission policies at Tufts, and the second came after the newspaper ran a satirical advertisement in response to “Islamic Awareness Week.” With these precedents of abuse at our nation’s best colleges, my faith in Princeton only comforts me so much.

It is true that Princeton, as a private university, is not bound by the First Amendment, like public universities are. But it would be unfortunate if we didn’t enjoy the rights legally guaranteed to students two stops up the Northeast Corridor Line at Rutgers University. Princeton’s marketplace of ideas should be the most robust in the nation.

Regardless of whether the code will be enforced anytime soon, it remains an embarrassment to anyone associated with the University who values individual liberty. It sends the message that feelings are to be protected over freedom and undermines the spirit of free inquiry that the University should embrace. I call on the administration to eliminate its speech code by fully aligning Princeton’s policies with First Amendment jurisprudence to confirm that it stands behind its students and their rights.

View this article at The Daily Princetonian.

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