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Princetonians for Free Speech launch a new survey to measure the success of free speech advocacy

Princeton University orange flag flying on campus

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Princeton University is one of the worst colleges for free speech in the country, according to FIRE’s annual College Free Speech Rankings

But just how bad is it?

That’s the question some alumni started asking back in 2020 when they founded Princetonians for Free Speech, a group of alumni committed to protecting free speech and academic freedom at Princeton. Now, in partnership with College Pulse, the group has surveyed 250 Princeton undergraduates to learn more about the state of free expression on campus and determine how best to leverage their activism. 

The results are concerning.

First, the results indicate that in many contexts on campus, Princeton students are less comfortable expressing themselves now than they were just a year ago. According to PFS’s survey, 41% of Princeton undergraduates felt “very” or “somewhat” comfortable expressing disagreement with one of their professors about a controversial topic in a written assignment — a 19% decline from the 60% of students who felt this way in 2022. Perhaps Princeton’s outrageous misuse of Title IX protections against a student journalist in September 2022 contributed to this stark decline in students’ comfort in expressing disagreement in their writing. 

The decline in student comfort is not as dramatic in other contexts. However, across the board, Princeton students reported feeling less comfortable expressing themselves than they did a year ago:

Question2022 % Comfortable2023 % Comfortable
Expressing disagreement with one of your professors about a controversial topic in a written assignment.60%41%
Expressing your views on a controversial political topic during an in-class discussion.52%44%
Expressing your views on a controversial political topic to other students during a discussion in a common campus space, such as a quad, dining hall, or lounge.71%63%
Publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic. 33%30%

In other words, Princeton’s culture for free expression is getting worse, and a large portion of Princeton students feel intimidated by the idea of sharing their opinions on issues considered controversial. 

Beyond students’ self-reported hesitancy to share their opinions, the survey reveals that Princeton students’ support for free speech culture is tenuous at best. For example, when asked which best describes their view of what speech should be allowed on campus, about half of students (48%) said that “any speech that uses discriminatory language or that a group or class of persons finds offensive or hurtful should not be allowed.” 

Just 30% said “all speech that would be protected by the First Amendment should be allowed.”

Princeton students also expressed a willingness to censor not only visiting speakers, but also their own classmates: 40% of students said that “an athletic team should be able to deny a spot to, or suspend, a student who expresses views others find offensive.” 

PFS cofounder Ed Yingling noted that these actions against students would “clearly violate the university’s rules,” yet many students showed a surprising willingness to punish their fellow students for expressing unpopular opinions. 

In more positive news, students seem to be taking notice of Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber’s recent free speech-affirming statements. In FIRE’s 2022 College Free Speech Rankings, 27% of students surveyed said that Princeton’s stance on free speech was “not very” or “not at all clear,” compared to 12% in the PFS survey done a year later. 

Still, as Yingling said, and as much of the other survey data indicates, “There is a huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality; most Princeton students neither support nor understand basic free speech principles.” Indeed, just 18% of students said they were very familiar with Princeton’s free speech rules. 

Yingling desires to provide opportunities for students to discover that free speech protections are meant to benefit them by ensuring their right to learn, ask questions, and express themselves openly. 

To reverse this trend in the coming years, alumni have their work cut out for them. Whatever it takes, we’ll be standing with them for the expressive rights of the Princeton community.

Despite gaps in student knowledge about free expression, not all hope is lost. Students reported a strong desire to witness open debate on campus: 

  • 60% said they would like to see the president of Princeton host debates on controversial topics with credible speakers.
  • 55% said they want to see debates on controversial topics between outside speakers. 

The marching orders for Princeton University and the Princeton Free Speech Alliance are straightforward: Host on-campus debates that show the power of dialogue through disagreements. 

Already, Yingling has pledged, on behalf of PFS, that the organization “will continue to do its part to improve the climate for free speech on campus by supporting faculty and students who exercise free speech, providing educational materials to students, and sponsoring programs and debates that model open discourse.”

To follow up on verbal commitments to free expression by Princeton’s president and the school’s adoption of the “Chicago Statement” — an excellent free speech commitment for colleges and universities — Princeton should consider revising its speech codes. The university still receives FIRE’s worst, “red light,” rating because its Guidelines for Compliance with the Acceptable Use Policy both clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech. 

To reverse this trend in the coming years, alumni have their work cut out for them. Whatever it takes, we’ll be standing with them for the expressive rights of the Princeton community.

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