Earlier this year, Princeton University became the first university to follow the University of Chicago’s lead by adopting Chicago’s statement on free expression, promising broad protection for speech on campus. The principles, adopted at Princeton in April by way of a faculty resolution, came after some professors grew increasingly concerned about creeping campus censorship.
Sergiu Klainerman, for one, was scared.
Klainerman, a mathematics professor, brought the proposal before the faculty as a means of reaffirming a commitment to academic freedom in the face of an increased demand for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”
“I come from a communist country,” said Klainerman, who was born and educated in Romania. “Freedom of speech was intimately tied to freedom in general for us.” So, when Klainerman found himself reading op-eds by students encouraging censorship in the name of “sensitivity”—complete with calls for mandatory classes and publication of a list of names of those who did not attend—he was shaken, saying he found the propositions disturbingly reminiscent of the communist regime’s efforts to reeducate dissidents.
“At some point, there were articles asking for obligatory courses in some kind of civics of how to behave, or ‘sensitivity training,’” Klainerman said. “That was very scary to me because obviously they remind me of things that were happening in all communist countries.”
“I mean, [it was] this notion that somehow you have to be reeducated. It was really terrible.”
In choosing to adopt the Chicago statement, Klainerman said, the idea “was to try [to] change the discussion” into one that championed the rights of both students and faculty to engage in meaningful debate on campus.
“It’s a very clear statement,” Klainerman said, “about the importance of people expressing opinions which are not necessarily popular.”
Academic freedom: “It’s the way it should be.”
While Princeton is a private institution, and thus not bound by the First Amendment like public universities, Princeton has long committed itself through its policies to the free and open exchange of ideas on campus. However, the administration still maintains several speech codes—including an information technology policy, rules about “Respect for Others,” and bans against “Discrimination and Sexual Misconduct”—that clearly and substantially restrict speech on campus and are, therefore, inconsistent with the new policy statement.
Princeton administrators declined to comment to FIRE on the adoption of the Chicago statement, saying it was a faculty-led proposal. FIRE has called on Princeton repeatedly to reform its speech codes.
That said, Klainerman said administrators were “very receptive.”
“I was really amazed,” he said, “because I kind of expected they would put lots of conditions that, you know, ‘academic freedom, yes, but there should be some limitations.’ But really, on the contrary, I was under the impression that they were extremely happy and they certainly supported the initiative fully.”
Once before the faculty for a vote, the initiative was approved by a clear majority, said Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence and political science, who also serves as the faculty parliamentarian.
“I’m personally happy at the faculty’s decision because I believe that robust and uninhibited speech on campus is indispensable to the mission of the university,” George said.
Now, with the adoption of the Chicago statement, George says free speech on campus has been affirmed once more.
“The motion that passed was not some mere sense of the faculty resolution; the faculty has voted to incorporate these principles into the ‘Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities’ of the university,” said George. “This means that these principles have been incorporated into the university’s internal law. It’s not just aspirational. Everybody at the university is bound by it.”
Professor George said he and his students benefit from these protections.
“There can be no retaliation for speech,” he said. “The student is protected. The professor is protected. Everybody is protected equally. I can say what I want in class. They can say what they want in class. And there’s a name for that: It’s called academic freedom. It’s the way it should be.”
George admitted borrowing a line from fellow Princeton professor Cornel West in saying that “students who are looking for safe spaces in which their cherished beliefs will not be challenged, will not find them in our classroom.” Despite ideological disagreements—George, a conservative, lightheartedly describes West as “my left-wing friend and colleague,” and the two have participated in joint speaking events around the country—George said he and professors like West “are committed to the idea that education and truth-seeking require us to subject even our most cherished and identity-forming beliefs to critical scrutiny.”
“There is a place for catechism class,” George said. “But that place is not in universities that have committed themselves to the free and open exchange of ideas and arguments.”
“Discussions that hit at the core of the issues”
For Duncan Hosie, a Princeton senior majoring in public policy, that free and open exchange made possible the moment that sparked his career as a social justice activist.
At a December 2012 question-and-answer session with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Hosie, then a freshman, made national headlines asking the Court’s most publicly outspoken justice whether he regretted comparing homosexuality to crimes like murder, bestiality, and incest.
Princeton’s news outlet reported the conversation:
In an exchange that drew applause for the question and the response, freshman Duncan Hosie asked Scalia about his mentions of murder, polygamy, cruelty to animals and bestiality in his dissents in cases regarding gay rights. Hosie, who identified himself as gay, said he found the comparisons offensive.
"Do you think it's necessary to draw these comparisons, to use this specific language, to make the point that the Constitution doesn't protect gay rights?" he asked.
"I don't think it's necessary, but I think it's effective," Scalia said. "It's a type of argument that I thought you would have known, which is called a reduction to the absurd. And to say that if we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder, can we have it against these other things? Of course we can. I don't apologize for the things I raised. I'm not comparing homosexuality to murder. I'm comparing the principle that a society may not adopt moral sanctions, moral views, against certain conduct. I'm comparing that with respect to murder and that with respect to homosexuality."
The back-and-forth earned Hosie an interview on MSNBC’s The Last Word. Ultimately, Hosie said discussing the controversy on campus was helpful for the gay rights movement.
It’s been helpful in other areas too.
“Having strong free speech protections are really vital to the work I do,” he said, noting his political activism extends to issues like women’s health and voting rights. “I know that I wouldn’t be able to engage in that type of activist work if I didn’t attend a university which had strong protections for that type of activity.”
Now, with the Chicago statement, he says having stronger free speech protections on campus “raises the intellectual quality of the debate [because] we’re exposed to more perspectives.”
“I think it makes my life much more enjoyable and much more rewarding because we’re able to engage in really meaningful discussions,” Hosie said. “We’re able to engage in discussions that hit at the core of the issues.”
Despite not getting the response he’d hoped for from Justice Scalia, Hosie said Scalia’s appearance at Princeton only helped further the cause he’s passionate about.
“You don’t make progress by covering up the areas in which there’s disagreement,” Hosie said. “The incident with Scalia then drew attention to a lot of issues. … Through the Scalia exchange, I was able to do more for gay rights,” Hosie said, adding that “the free speech protection on campus was critical to enabling that encounter to occur.”
“It gave me a platform to continue talking about what mattered.”
FIRE commends Princeton University for encouraging its campus community to keep the conversation going by adopting the Chicago statement on free speech. We are hopeful that the adoption of the Chicago statement will be the spark that leads the institution to finally reform its remaining speech codes. As always, we stand ready to help.