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Princeton Students Debate Limits of Free Expression

In the week and a half since the Princeton faculty approved a new statement on free expression, students have been vigorously debating the statement and the question of free speech on campus more generally. While some remarks have reflected the regrettable “I have the right not to be offended” attitude too prevalent among college students today, the debate overall has reflected a thoughtful consideration of the issues.

Last Monday, the Princeton faculty voted to approve a statement on free expression to be published in the university’s “Rights, Rules, Responsibilities” document, which governs student conduct on campus. Math professor Sergiu Klainerman, who was born and raised in communist Romania, brought the motion. He told The Daily Princetonian that he appreciated the need for free speech in part due to his experience living under a dictatorship:

“I learned how easy it is to pervert seemingly good intentions into a repressive system in which free speech is banned,” Klainerman said. “No other impression was more powerful to me than the sense of freedom I experienced during my first weeks and months in U.S.”

The faculty statement came in the midst of an ongoing debate among Princeton students over the limits of free expression on campus. Students have been critical of the Undergraduate Student Government’s (USG’s) decision to invite rapper Big Sean to perform at Princeton’s annual “Lawnparties” celebration. A student petition asks USG to rescind the invitation, alleging that Big Sean’s lyrics promote “rape culture and misogyny.”

At the same time, Princeton students have been lighting up social media with complaints over a performance by a student dance and percussion group, Urban Congo, that offended students with what critics deemed a “misappropriation of culture.” (Members of the now-defunct Urban Congo group wore loincloths and body paint while using various objects as percussion instruments.)

Some students have opposed the new free expression statement, arguing that it will only worsen an already hostile climate for underrepresented students at Princeton. Student Wilglory Tanjong told The Daily Princetonian:

“This statement is a direct result of the deep historical ties the University has to slavery and the oppression of the marginalized,” Tanjong said. “This statement allows the oppression of people of color, what this university was founded on, to continue.”

Tanjong said she believes the statement should be abolished.

Other students have been vocal in their support for the statement. The editorial board of The Daily Princetonian, with one person abstaining, published a staff editorial in which they wrote:

A university is a stage for the clash of ideas through reasoned discourse between those of diverse points of view. Princetonians are diverse in many ways. We differ academically, politically and culturally. Diversity of thought inevitably yields disagreement. But despite our differences and deep personal investment in various debates, we pride ourselves on the ability to engage with one another and develop ideas and values through healthy participation in the University’s intellectual community. We therefore commend the University faculty and President Eisgruber’s administration for passing a motion to include a more comprehensive statement protecting freedom of expression in the University “Rights, Rules, Responsibilities,” and we strongly encourage our peer institutions to follow suit.

Since then, the debate over free speech has filled the editorial pages of the Prince. In a particularly thoughtful editorial entitled “Free to hate,” columnist Steve Swanson analyzed two competing models of free speech—that enshrined in the First Amendment and the more restrictive model prevalent in Europe—and argued that, although Princeton is private, the First Amendment model is better suited to the university’s campus. Swanson wrote:

Princeton students, in theory, are smart enough and critical enough to handle a marketplace of competing ideas, and the existence of such a marketplace is a crucial component of the college experience. Suppression of harmful ideas on campus not only fails to prepare students for an outside world without this suppression, but also fails to ensure that students believe what they believe for good reason. Of course, this doesn’t mean that students harmed by others have no recourse except for a thicker skin: if Urban Congo offended you, tell them why; tell other students why they’re wrong; ask your classmates to boycott or condemn the show. Use your free speech against theirs. Change the attitudes of your classmates; don’t police their behavior.

FIRE joins Swanson in supporting more free speech at Princeton, not less. We think that the university must, consistent with its longstanding commitments to free speech as well as the new faculty statement, abolish the speech codes that prohibit what would otherwise be protected speech. But we are also very happy to see students of all viewpoints—whether they support more or fewer limits on free speech at Princeton—engaging in the type of open debate that should characterize the university experience.

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