July 24, 2021 5 min read

The Princeton orientation for the class of 2025 has become very controversial. See for example, this article by Rod Dreher. And the controversy is likely to grow. We have talked to a number of alumni, current faculty and students who are deeply troubled by the orientation, and for good reason. An article by two Princeton professors lays out how arriving new students received “a mandatory injection not of a vaccine against COVID, but of indoctrination,” including “an utterly one-sided and negative picture of Princeton’s history.”

A significant part of the orientation was devoted to an extensive “Gallery” entitled: "To Be KNOWN and heard Systemic Racism and Princeton University,” with four “chapters” including one headed “Race and Free Speech,” and a 52-minute “Orientation Video,” presented by the Office of Diversity & Inclusion, of professors commenting on the gallery. The gallery depicts -- through drawings, photos, and text -- a history of racism at Princeton from the slave holdings of some of its founders to more recent times. It is dramatic and disturbing and presents many facts that should be known and discussed on campus. It also presents a very negative portrayal of free speech, on which more below.

Are these presentations the first things that incoming students, right out of high school, should see about Princeton? And do they present anything close to a balanced view of Princeton or provide any context, such as the innumerable ways in which Princeton has benefitted people of color, who still flock to the University from all over the world? The answer to both questions is no.

The presentations, especially when taken together, would leave many new students with the impression that Princeton is a particularly evil place. In fact, one of the speakers in the video, Classics Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta, explicitly says that Princeton professors should provide their students “with the tools to tear down this place and make it a better one.” For those who want to see another view, we recommend an article headlined “Princeton University is One of the Least Racist Institutions in the World,” by Sergiu Klainerman, a professor of mathematics.

The gallery also attacks a Princeton professor by name, as detailed in the Dreher article linked above. Why would the Princeton administration allow a professor to be personally attacked in its own orientation materials and include quotes from two other professors also attacking him? This should not have been done at all, and it certainly should not have been done in a way that provided no context or balance.

Then there is the view of free speech that is presented. As cofounders of Princetonians for Free Speech, we will delve into that in some detail. Princeton was one of the first universities to adopt as part of its own rules the Chicago Principles on free speech, which have now been adopted by over ninety colleges and universities and are widely seen as the gold standard for vigorous protection of free speech by professors and students. It is clear from their prior statements that some Princeton professors disdain the Chicago Principles and would love to punish the expression of views with which they strongly disagree. Unfortunately, the same is true of the editorial board of the Daily Princetonian.

The gallery’s “Race and Free Speech” chapter gives example after example implicitly driving home the idea that protecting free speech is bad because it allows hate speech. In this sense, the University’s first-year orientation materials promote a hostility to free speech that is directly contrary to the University’s own rules protecting free speech. This protection, as does the First Amendment, includes the ugliest kinds of hate speech, and certainly includes the very wide range of reasonable statements, whether people agree with them or not, that are routinely smeared by partisans as “hate speech.”

So Professor Padilla Peralta was indirectly attacking Princeton’s own rules when he said in the video presented to all incoming students: “I am particularly intent on . . . the privilege, especially for those of us who have the benefits of tenure to exercise, of free speech, but I don’t mean free speech in the masculinized bravado sense that it seems to be stapled with in the minds of colleagues with whom I’ve had disagreements over the years. I envision a free speech and academic discourse that is flexed to one specific aim, and that aim is the promotion of social justice, and an anti-racist social justice at that.” Translation: Free speech should be for me and my allies to express our views, and only us.

There was nothing else in the orientation on free speech: no discussion of the Chicago Principles, or of Princeton’s free speech rules, or of our nation’s free speech tradition embodied by the First Amendment and the Supreme Court’s broad interpretations of it. President Eisgruber did touch on the topic in a passing and oblique fashion in his orientation speech, by saying that students should be civil to each other. That was it.

In Princeton’s only presentation to new students on free speech, should not the University’s own free speech rules have been included – indeed, highlighted and detailed? After all, free speech, and the current climate of intimidation that makes many students and even faculty fearful of expressing their views, is clearly one of the most important issues on campuses these days. The negative treatment of free speech in the orientation materials raises a fundamental question of whether the Princeton administration is still committed to the Chicago Principles.

And might it have made sense to include some of the well-known endorsements of free speech by African American leaders and others as vital for marginalized groups seeking to overcome discrimination? We have suggestions:

Frederick Douglass: “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thought and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants.”

John Lewis: “Without freedom of speech and the right to dissent, the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings.”

President Barack Obama: “I don’t agree that you when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”

So, imagine that you are a nineteen-year-old in your first few days at Princeton. What the University’s leaders chose to offer as their introduction to your next four years was that Princeton is an evil, racist place that students should “tear down” under guidance from their professors; and that free speech is bad and should be limited. Many new students no doubt drew another conclusion: I’d better keep my mouth shut.

Stuart Taylor, Jr, ’70, President

Edward L. Yingling ’70, Secretary and Treasurer

Princetonians for Free Speech

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