Alumni Spotlight: Princetonians for free speech

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Alumni Spotlight: Princetonians for Free Speech

The Arched Hallway of Holder Hall on the campus of Princeton University

The Arched Hallway of Holder Hall on the campus of Princeton University. (Jay Yuan / Shutterstock.com)

One of America’s oldest universities, Princeton was established before the Union itself. It is nationally recognized as a bastion of academic excellence, due in part to its 11 National Humanities Medal recipients, 215 Rhodes Scholars, and 137 Marshall Scholars. Princeton graduates are proud of their alma mater’s history and its involvement during a pivotal battle of the American Revolution. Now, in an effort to preserve their storied institution, Princeton alumni are channeling that same revolutionary spirit to stand against orthodoxy on campus. 

Since its inception in 2020, Princetonians for Free Speech has rallied to defend students and faculty who face censorship for expressing their views. Co-founders Ed Yingling and Stuart Taylor are proud of their alumni efforts to promote academic freedom at Princeton, stating on their website that their “board consists of a broad cross-section of Princeton alumni” and proclaiming that they will “stand up for the free speech and academic freedom of progressives, moderates, and conservatives alike.” 

These alumni are right in calling out hypocrisy in action.

Princetonians for Free Speech coordinates with students and faculty to publish content and provide a platform for Princeton stakeholders to express their views on the state of affairs at their institution. Yet, the founders of PFS were not satisfied with just helping their Princeton colleagues support these core tenets of American education. They took their work a step further.

In 2021, Taylor and Yingling partnered with alumni from Cornell University (Cornell Free Speech Alliance), University of Virginia (Jefferson Council), Washington and Lee University (Generals Redoubt), and Davidson College (Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought & Discourse) to form the Alumni Free Speech Alliance. This stalwart group of alumni seeks to “encourage the creation of alumni free speech groups for other colleges and universities,” provide the “tools to help new alumni groups organize,” and support “free speech and academic freedom.” 

Writing for RealClearPolitics, Yingling and Taylor recently penned an article in defense of embattled Princeton professor Joshua Katz, who faced retaliation on campus after his criticism of diversity initiatives. Titled “How Princeton Eviscerated Its Free Speech Rule and Covered It Up,” Yingling and Taylor examine Katz’s ongoing battle to clear his name after he was accused of being a racist, then faced intimidation as the university hinted at investigating him for his protected speech, before finally backing off. 

Even though there was no investigation, no findings, and no formal censure of Katz, ever since then, Princeton has included a description of Katz’s speech in a training module’s “virtual gallery” about the school’s history of systemic racism. Yingling and Taylor take the university to task for its actions that are antithetical to its institutional promises of freedom of expression.

Holding Princeton accountable on free speech

Back in 2015, Princeton became the first institution to follow the University of Chicago’s lead and adopt the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression (the “Chicago Statement”). In doing so, Princeton affirmed to all its constituents that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” 

The statement also proclaimed that it is not Princeton’s business to make judgments on particular speech. Rather, it is the responsibility of all Princeton stakeholders to make these judgments and then act on them through engagement rather than scorn and censorship. These ideals could have been used to shield the Princeton administration from criticism by affirming the already strong commitment to freedom of expression and refusing to investigate clearly protected speech. But the university promptly forgot them when push came to shove.

FIRE is proud to see alumni organize around the country and publicly hold their alma maters accountable.

These alumni are right in calling out hypocrisy in action. The actions taken by Princeton paint a clear picture for future tuition paying students and tenure track hopefuls: do not expect our institutional commitments to free expression to protect you if you find yourself on the wrong side of campus politics.

As Yingling and Taylor wrote when they launched AFSA, “opponents of free speech and academic freedom are well-organized.” More than that — they’re institutionalized. 

FIRE is proud to see alumni organize around the country and publicly hold their alma maters accountable to the tenets of free speech and the promises these universities willingingly make to their students, staff, and faculty. We hope you’ll join FIRE, the Princetonians for Free Speech, and other alumni organizations in the fight to safeguard free speech at our alma maters. 

If you’d like to discuss the creation of an independent alumni group at your alma mater, contact Connor Murnane at connor.murnane@thefire.org

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