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At Princeton, a (Mostly) Satisfactory Resolution to the Satire Controversy

In a refreshing development, The Daily Princetonian joke op-ed controversy will resolve itself through campus discussion, not through administrative intervention. Even though the op-ed garnered a good amount of media attention—enough to be featured in The New York Times—administrators at Princeton have limited their involvement to a strongly worded letter to the editor. While Janet Smith Dickerson, Vice President for Campus Life, and Kathleen Deignan, Dean of Undergraduate Students, do make some statements with which I disagree (like the implication that offensive satire and parody are not “productive ways to engage an academic community,” a statement disproved by this incident), they do not impose, or suggest, any punishments. In an e-mail, outgoing Editor-in-Chief Chanakya Sethi writes:

The University has characterized our decision to publish the column as poor judgment but has at the same time accepted our expression of regret for having caused some of our readers offence. They approve of the steps we have taken, both on our own and in partnership with other on campus groups, to promote constructive dialogue and move the conversation forward.

As I did with regards to the incident involving the “date rape” cartoon that ran in The Dartmouth, I have mixed feelings at the resolution of this controversy. As I stated at the start, the fact that the administration did not punish the Princetonian is refreshing. However, Sethi’s statement, with its understandable focus on satisfying the university, is symptomatic of a campus climate in which students fear the administration’s response to controversial speech instead of a climate in which students believe the administration will protect that speech. Echoing the managing board’s concern about the university’s reaction, the recently graduated authors of the IvyGate blog predicted the op-ed would result in “[ ] hate mail, [ ] meetings with deans, [ ] sensitivity training seminars.” And on The Boston Globe’s blog Brainiac, Christopher Shea writes, “But this essay has campus-incident/protest/statement-from-the-president written all over it… (Shirley Tilghman: You may want to clear your schedule for the next couple of days.)”

The managing board’s original apology and their joint statement with the Asian-American Student Association leave no doubt that the Princetonian did not mean to cause the offense that resulted from the publication of the joke op-ed. However, in a campus culture which demands apologies for all offensive and controversial speech, the apologies begin to sound insincere. And when apologies become the norm, offended members of the campus community will eventually call for more severe punishments. No matter what the intent of the speaker, the First Amendment protects controversial, offensive, vulgar, and tasteless speech. And though not bound by the First Amendment, even private schools should recognize the importance of this speech—look at the national conversation about race, prejudice, and college admissions that this single joke op-ed incited—and do their best to protect it.

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