The State of Free Speech on Campus: Princeton University

By on June 22, 2009

Throughout the spring semester and into the early summer, FIRE is drawing special attention to the state of free speech at America’s top 25 national universities (as ranked by U.S. News & World Report). We have now come to our final two universities: Princeton and Harvard. Today we review policies at my alma mater, Princeton University, which FIRE has given a red-light rating for maintaining policies that prohibit protected speech on campus.

Although Princeton is private, its policies contain robust protections for free speech. The Rights, Rules, Responsibilities handbook states that

The central purposes of a University are the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research, the teaching and general development of students, and the transmission of knowledge and learning to society at large. Free inquiry and free expression within the academic community are indispensable to the achievement of these goals.

The university’s policy on Peaceful Dissent, Protests and Demonstrations similarly provides that "Free speech and peaceable assembly are basic requirements of the University as a center for free inquiry and the search for knowledge and insight."

Unfortunately, several of Princeton’s policies undermine its ability to function as a true center for free inquiry by prohibiting speech that, at any of New Jersey’s public universities, would be constitutionally protected. At a university that advertises itself as being so fully committed to protecting students’ rights, this is simply unacceptable.

Princeton’s policy on Respect for Others prohibits

Abusive or harassing behavior, verbal or physical, which demeans, intimidates, threatens, or injures another because of personal characteristics or beliefs or their expression….

The first problem with this policy is that it prohibits speech that "demeans" or "injures" students on the basis of their beliefs, which means it could be applied to punish students for engaging in virtually any heated political, philosophical, or religious debate that leaves one side feeling hurt or offended. It is inconceivable that such core political expression could be threatened at a university like Princeton, which holds itself out as a major center of research and thought. Even if the policy is never applied to this type of expression, its very existence chills the kind of robust dialogue and debate that students at Princeton rightfully expect.

It is also unacceptable that the policy prohibits speech that demeans or injures on the basis of personal characteristics (which it defines as attributes such as "sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, and handicap"). While the university may (and should) legitimately prohibit students from harassing one another on the basis of these characteristics, most expression that leaves someone feeling hurt or demeaned falls far short of the legal definition of harassment. Actual harassmentas Princeton rightfully recognizes elsewhere in the same policyrequires that conduct be severe, pervasive, and that it materially interfere with someone’s ability to benefit from his or her education. This prohibition, by contrast, merely requires that a student feel demeaned, intimidated, or-perhaps most vaguely-"injured."

Princeton’s Internet use guidelines also impermissibly restrict student speech. According to that policy,

Using the campus technologies or access to network technologies provided by the University under its name, or in any other venue in which you are acting as an agent of the University, you must refrain from creating and sending, posting, or displaying, or causing to be sent or posted, or displayed, or assisting to create and send or cause to be sent, posted, or displayed, any malicious, harassing, or libelous messages or statements regarding another person, via e-mail, instant message, text message, or voice mail, by posting to blogs, mailing lists, social networks or newsgroups, by posting to the World Wide Web, by issuing as a virtual reality avatar, or by inclusion in a video produced for broadcast via the campus network or TigerTV.

As an initial matter, it strains credibility to think that Princeton actually believes that every student using campus technologies to send an e-mail or post to his or her Facebook account (a group that would include every student living on campus, which at Princeton is virtually the entire student body) is "acting as an agent of the University." Frankly, such an argument is ridiculous, and this agency theory does nothing to legitimize Princeton’s assertion of dominion over virtually every student electronic communication.

Getting to the substance of the policy, the policy prohibits sending, posting, or displaying any "malicious" statements regarding another person, be it over e-mail, IM, or an off-campus site like Facebook. "Malicious statements" could mean virtually anything; to me, this policy brings to mind the student at the University of Central Florida who, several years ago, found himself in hot water with the university for starting a Facebook group calling a student government candidate a "jerk and a fool." Like Princeton’s "Respect for Others" policy, this policy threatens the type of core political and ideological expression at the heart of what the First Amendment (and equivalent private protections of free speech) exists to protect.

So long as these policies are in place, Princeton cannot truly be the "center for free inquiry" that it aspires to be.

Stay tuned next week for the final entry in our blog series, discussing the state of free speech at Harvard University.

Schools: Princeton University