COMMENTS OF PRINCETONIANS FOR FREE SPEECH ON THE PROPOSAL TO REMOVE THE STATUE OF JOHN WITHERSPOON

December 19, 2022 11 min read

EDITORS NOTE: This is the submission sent by PFS to Princeton on the proposal to remove the statue of John Witherspoon currently being considered by the University. 

Princetonians for Free Speech (“PFS”) appreciates this opportunity to provide the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) Committee on Naming (“the Committee”) with its views on the proposal to remove the statute of John Witherspoon from the Firestone Plaza. PFS is an alumni organization that promotes free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity at Princeton. Thousands of alumni, as well as many others, subscribe to our email updates or follow us through our website at princetoniansforfreespeech.com.

Thank you for holding alumni listening sessions to hear reactions to the petition recommending removal of the statue of John Witherspoon from Firestone Plaza (“the Petition”). The listening sessions, however, provided the opportunity for only a limited number of interested individuals to speak, and as discussed below, the sessions do not and could not provide a true picture of Princetonians’ views on the matter.

Listening session hosts reported that the Committee on Naming is not bound by the Petition’s arguments in its recommendation to the Board of Trustees. However, the Petition’s authors have made arguments and relied on assumptions that will help inform the Committee’s recommendation. These PFS comments thus focus on the Petition’s text.

PFS will make the following points: 1. The process being followed by the Committee does not, and cannot, provide a true view of what Princetonians think on the issue in question because the atmosphere on campus greatly inhibits students, faculty, and others from stating their true views, especially where highly politicized issues are involved. 2. The debate over whether to remove the statue is not an isolated one, but rather has implications for other issues, most importantly, for free speech. 3. Removal of the statute would inevitably lead to petitions and demands to remove or rename other parts of Princeton’s history in a process that may never end. 4. Looked at more broadly, this continuing process of removing and renaming is an attempt to remove Princeton’s history, with all its complexity, in order to create a new university with a monolithic view that would make nonconforming views unwelcome.

1. The process being followed does not, and cannot, provide a true picture of the views of Princetonians

Any petition, and particularly one with 300 signatories, is a legitimate and important method for voicing collective concern and demand for change. However, it is clear that on many campuses today, including Princeton, students and faculty are afraid to state their views or ask questions freely, particularly on certain issues. Since the arguments about removal of the statute are directly about race, the issue of removal is certainly one on which many students and faculty will not speak openly. In fact, they will not engage in debate at all.

At Stanford University’s recent two-day conference on academic freedom, Heterodox Academy founder Jonathan Haidt summarized the trend since 2015. “It is all about conflict and fear now. Professors are afraid of students. Students are afraid of other students. Students send in lists of demands to presidents, and to their eternal shame none of the presidents’ question or dispute them. Presidents are instead doing everything they can to give them what they demand.” Polls demonstrate this fear is endemic at many campuses, and Princeton is no different.

The situation at Princeton is confirmed by the nationally recognized non-partisan FIRE Free Speech Ranking survey. For Princeton, the survey results show, without a doubt, that the great majority of students at Princeton do not feel free to express their views on a topic such as the removal of the Witherspoon statue. For example, only 25% of Princeton students said it was never acceptable to shout down a speaker. Only 23% said they were very comfortable expressing their views on a political topic during class discussions. Only 55% said it was never acceptable to block other students from attending a speech on campus. In this atmosphere, the idea that a listening session is a way to allow students to speak freely on the issue in question is not credible.

The most relevant question in the FIRE survey asks students if they would feel comfortable in expressing their views on a controversial issue in a common space on campus -- in other words, expressing their views in a space such as a dorm or quad where conversations take place. Incredibly, only 14% of students said they would be very comfortable speaking freely in those circumstances. This alarming situation is confirmed by the most recent William F Buckley annual survey of 800 college students, which reports that a record 63% are reluctant to express a view different from their peers.

Now consider a situation in which the issue involves race and slavery and is in a forum that is open to public view. It is an absolute certainty that the percentage of students who would be willing to speak their views in that much more charged and public circumstance is very, very low.

PFS members are in regular contact with students, recently graduated students, and faculty at Princeton. We are consistently told that students and faculty are, with rare exceptions, reluctant to speak openly on many issues. They are quite aware that stating their views can have severe repercussions, and they have seen clear examples of that in recent years. While there are numerous such examples, one stands out.

In the Spring of 2020, when a small group of students wrote a letter objecting to some of the demands relating to racial justice in a letter signed by some faculty and others, the students were attacked viciously on social media and otherwise by other students. They were called “Nazis” and other names. One student had an internship interview cancelled because he signed the student letter. This level of bullying violated Princeton’s official free speech commitment, and yet when the Princeton administration was informed of it, nothing was done -- not even a statement of support for students’ right to dissent from the views of their activist peers. PFS has seen instances within the past year where students have stated they will not join others in publicly expressing a view they share because of fear of the repercussions that could occur. Who can blame them?

A dramatic culture shift has occurred at Princeton and many other universities — a shift of core purpose away from learning in the pursuit of knowledge and truth, and towards pursuit of “social justice.” This shift has produced a dominant narrative that sidelines and punishes those who challenge it. Students and teachers are harassed and ostracized, subjected to disciplinary procedures or otherwise cancelled if they question orthodoxies. This has led to a troubling and now well-documented constriction of what is acceptable to voice and study and question, and what is not. There is a narrowing of permissible perspectives and lines of inquiry in the arts and social sciences and even in the hard sciences.

In one alumni listening session, most participants were silent. A few who advocated for removal dominated the time allotted. But a few others broached a different perspective, as they expressed worry about the problem of erasing history, preferring instead to add context and treat Witherspoon’s legacy as a learning opportunity. The atmosphere that now exists at Princeton means that the listening sessions, however commendable, do not give a clear picture of the views of Princetonians. In fact, they likely give a misleading picture. Those who espouse removal of the statue face no danger of repercussions, while those who might oppose, except for a few brave souls, do not provide their views for legitimate fear of repercussions.

Furthermore, one cannot be sure that all the petition’s signees fully agree with it. How many of them signed on because they feel passionately about the removal of the statue, and how many felt pressured to sign for fear of condemnation from their peers if they did not? With the dominant climate on campus, we cannot be sure what is the correct answer.

We are reminded of an August 4, 2020 article in the Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf: “[R]oughly 350 [Princeton] faculty members and staff signed an open letter, published on July 4, that set forth nearly 50 demands. These were premised on the claims that anti-Black racism plays a powerful role at Princeton, that it has ‘a visible bearing’ on Princeton’s makeup and hiring practices, and [perpetuates] micro-aggression and outright racist incidents.’

“Among the demands: Exponentially increase the number of faculty of color; elevate more faculty of color to leadership positions; . . . implement anti-racist training that ‘moves participants through stages of vulnerability, productive discomfort, and reflection’; pay faculty of color more and give them course relief and more time for sabbaticals than white faculty; [and] [c]onstitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty. [But]I learned that some signatories [do not] share these concerns. In fact, some don’t support the creation of a tribunal at all.... [M]ultiple signatories are vehemently opposed to the demand beneath which they put their names.”

The committee assures there will be a “broad and deliberative dialogue” taking time to engage faculty, students, and alumni, as well as the expertise of historians. However, in the current atmosphere, such a public “dialogue” will produce a biased view. The only way to obtain the true view of faculty, students, and alumni would be to conduct extensive polling.

2. The debate over removing the statue has significant implications for free speech and academic freedom and therefore must be considered in a broader context.

PFS is focused on supporting free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity at Princeton. Generally, issues surrounding removing statues or renaming buildings or schools are not within our mission. However, in this case we believe the debate on the removal of the Witherspoon statue and the inevitable further push for more removal and renaming, discussed in section 3, below, have profound implications for the future of free speech at Princeton.

The petitioners argue that Princeton, is a “home” and therefore a place where students should feel comfortable and protected from disturbing associations. They argue that honoring John Witherspoon in such a prominent way in Firestone Plaza requires confronting the monument, which for many is “jarring” and upsetting, and will, the petition claims, make them feel “less at home” because Witherspoon’s legacy includes the fact that he owned slaves. Is Princeton a “home” in this sense of intellectual comfort and refuge? Princeton is supposed to be a place of learning, a place where rigorous debate and disputation are central to the process of education. It is a place designed to stretch minds, to challenge assumptions, to foster curiosity and humility. In short, it is a place that is meant to be sometimes uncomfortable, as Princeton’s own commitment to free speech and academic freedom implicitly affirms.

The petition assumes a monolithic point of view among students, particularly students of color, when they see or pass by the statue honoring a historical figure who was at once foundational both to Princeton and to the fledgling nation, and who was also was an owner of slaves. In fact, however, students of every ethnicity and background possess widely varied views, not towards the ethics of slavery as an institution, but towards how they, today, should think about people, norms and practices of different eras. The petition’s authors summarily dismiss consideration of time and context. But these considerations are not dismissible. Princeton’s students are, or ought to be, in a learning, discovery and truth-seeking mode. As such they may well not be looking for protection from offense when they contemplate Witherspoon’s legacy. They could instead be asking how it is that such a stunning moral and cultural change occurred from an era when slavery was commonplace and ubiquitous throughout the world, to an era when it was and remains considered, at least in the western world, repulsive, to use the petitioners’ correct term? What were the factors that led certain parts of the world to fight bloody wars to end this evil, while in other parts of the world, such as China, North Korea, Nigeria, Russia and Iran, slavery in some form is still practiced and condoned today? Princeton students are highly intelligent and inquiring, and so they may well be asking these questions. It is incorrect, even insulting, to presume that they all experience discomfort and offense in their daily interaction with the Witherspoon statue.

The assertion that any artifact, historical fact, thought, association or words that might be a source of “offense” -- and therefore needs to be expunged -- provides the key rationale for abandoning a commitment to free speech and academic freedom. It was President Obama who, in a 2015 town hall meeting at a high school in Iowa, understood this danger when he said: “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at college have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”

PFS agrees with President Obama’s statement.

The honor bestowed by the statue commemorates Witherspoon’s role in transforming this university from a small, impoverished Presbyterian college to a prominent institution that trained many leaders of a new country. Beyond Princeton, the commemoration implicitly honors his support of the American Revolution, and his courageous signing of the Declaration of Independence at a time when the Revolution seemed likely to fail, and that act could easily have led to his persecution and even execution. It commemorates his service in Congress, his role in drafting the Articles of Confederation, and his support of the Constitution’s ratification. The facts that he owned slaves and yet was at the same time anti-slavery as a “gradualist abolitionist” may seem incongruous to many people today. Their juxtaposition speaks to the ironies and contradictions that characterize historical understanding -- a discipline that requires overcoming the subjective bias of “presentism.”

Princeton’s mission demands contemplation and debate around these seemingly incongruous facts about Witherspoon, not only to shed light on him and his time, but also because historical understanding provides insights to the ironies and contradictions of our own time. Looked at in this way, the petitioners’ assertion that the statue is a “distraction from the university’s mission” is profoundly misguided. Providing context to the statue, with the addition of a plaque that enhances historical understanding (as some of the listening session participants suggested), would highlight Princeton’s mission to advance learning and disseminate knowledge in pursuit of truth.

3. If the statute is removed, it will lead to more petitions in a never-ending effort to remove things that make students “uncomfortable” or “less at home.”

The petition’s argument is subjective and therefore not subject to any standards. Any group at Princeton can apply it to statues, buildings, programs, writings, or speech that they do not like. Princeton’s history is a long one and mirrors much of our nation’s history, both the good and the bad. There are many aspects of Princeton’s history that can be legitimately criticized for supporting discrimination, not just on race, but of many types.

It is highly likely that if the petitioners’ demand is met on the grounds of such a vague and subjective standard, other petitions will quickly follow, and the University will see recurring and divisive debates, debates that will send a message to many students and faculty that the only safe thing to do is to stay quiet. The push for a safe “home” will make Princeton an ever less safe place for free speech and for academic freedom.

4. The on-going push to remove and rename is, at its most fundamental level, an effort to erase history.

The petition ends confident in the presumption that Princeton will “remember its history rightly and with an eye to its future mission” by removing the statue. But removal is about forgetting, not remembering. And what does Princeton’s “future mission” mean? How does it differ from its timeless mission to educate and advance knowledge?

There is a profound battle going on at many universities, including Princeton. Is the purpose of a university to promote learning and advance knowledge or is it to train students and use its resources to promote “social justice,” as that term is defined by the current campus orthodoxy? Erasing history does not promote learning or advance knowledge. To the contrary, it is something that has been done by authoritarian regimes – communism, Maoism, and Naziism, for example – in order to pave the way for total commitment to their orthodoxies.

Whatever the petitioners’ intent, PFS is arguing that the effort to remove Witherspoon’s statue has implications much broader than just one statue. Other petitions will follow; other demands will be made. Students and faculty know this will be the case. They will increasingly see Princeton not as a place dedicated to learning and advancing knowledge, but as a place where orthodoxy is imposed and only a narrow version of history and knowledge is accepted. A great university will lose its way.

Thank you for considering our views. Princetonians for Free Speech.


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