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Free Speech at Princeton: A Report From the Front Lines

By December 17, 2015

Yesterday afternoon, I visited Princeton University (my alma mater) to participate in a panel entitled “Free Speech, Media and Social Justice.” The panel, sponsored by the student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, began typically enough, with each of my co-panelists and I giving a brief introduction to our perspective. I spoke about FIRE’s support for (and extensive work on behalf of) students’ right to protest, but also expressed concern that too many protesters’ demands would, if met, themselves infringe on students’ right to free speech.

Soon after our introductory remarks, however, things became heated.

Before I get into a discussion of what happened—which I will both because it was interesting and because it can inform the way free speech advocates engage with our critics going forward—let me be clear about something. Everything that happened in that room was an exercise of the right to free speech, which I and FIRE wholeheartedly support. The experience definitely drove home for me what we are asking others to do when we advocate for an unfettered right to free speech, because I felt angry, sad, and downright uncomfortable at various points during the event. But that is what free speech is about. As the U.S. Supreme Court so eloquently wrote in Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949):

[A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech, though not absolute, is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest. There is no room under our Constitution for a more restrictive view.

One thing the panel really drove home for me is that to a large extent, free speech advocates and student protesters are talking past one another on the issue of free speech. My co-panelist Professor Peter Singer and I expressed the view that free speech is an important societal right in and of itself, while my two student co-panelists (as well as a number of student activists who spoke from the audience) were of the opinion that one cannot discuss free speech without discussing it in the context of America’s history of racial discrimination. This viewpoint was on full display when one student in the audience asked Professor Singer and myself to explain everything we knew about the history of racism in America and at Princeton, strongly implying that unless we were able to do so to her satisfaction, we had no right to be advocating for free speech.

One of the most challenging aspects of the panel, for me, was the attempt by one of my co-panelists to discredit FIRE rather than engage me in a substantive discussion of the issues. Following my presentation, he began to cite selective staff bios and cases from FIRE’s website in an effort to support his argument that people who support free speech are actually seeking to advance a partisan agenda. FIRE’s staff and the kinds of speech we defend are as politically diverse as they come, but he chose to ignore anything that did not fit his narrative. To his mind, FIRE’s defense of free speech could only be the result of political agenda, facts be damned.

This was deeply frustrating. In my experience, most people—whether I agree or disagree with them—with whom I have engaged in the course of my work at FIRE seem to be operating from a place of good faith. Indeed, the student activists who challenged myself and Professor Singer, while I disagreed with their tactics, were acting in good faith. So I was honestly shocked to encounter someone who chose to deliberately misrepresent my organization in an effort to discredit my arguments, rather than actually challenging my views. The good news, however, is that free speech provided a remedy for this as well. I had the opportunity to respond to his allegations by discussing the many people and cases at FIRE whom he had conveniently left out of his remarks, and indeed, a number of students approached me after the panel to thank me for participating and to say they felt FIRE had been unfairly characterized.

I don’t know where all of this is going to lead us. There is clearly a great deal of racial tension on campus. FIRE believes these issues are best resolved through free and open debate. To quote Jonathan Rauch,

[t]he answer, that is, is not to try to legislate bias and prejudice out of existence or to drive them underground, but to pit biases and prejudices against each other and make them fight in the open. That is how, in the crucible of rational criticism, superstition and moral error are burned away.

But as I saw firsthand yesterday, there are many peoplestudents, in particularwho disagree, and who do not seem terribly interested in hearing from those with whom they disagree. That, of course, is their absolute prerogative thanks to the right to free speech, but I don’t know what it means for the future of that right on campus.

Stay tuned.

Schools: Princeton University