Princetonians Student Free Speech Survey Shows More Work Needs To Be Done

June 12, 2024 7 min read

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By Ed Yingling '70
PFS Co-Founder

The Princetonians for Free Speech (PFS) second annual survey of Princeton students is now available. This survey provides information on student attitudes on key free speech issues. Because the survey is being done annually, comparisons can be made to see if Princeton is making progress. Unfortunately, with three important exceptions, on most issues the survey shows little or no progress from the troublesome results in the first survey. In a few cases, the results are worse than last year. Clearly Princeton still has work to do.

The survey was carried out by College Pulse, a highly respected survey company with specific expertise in surveying college students. College Pulse also does the highly respected national free speech survey of colleges and universities for the Foundation for Individual Freedom and Expression (FIRE).  Princeton ranked a dismal 187 out of 248 in the most recent FIRE survey. Notably, Harvard ranked dead last.

There are two important developments not directly addressed in the survey that we believe deserve special note. First, while the survey contained two questions on student views relating to protests on campuses in the wake of the October 7 attack in Israel, the survey was developed before the attempt to set up an encampment at Princeton. However, the majority of the answers were obtained after that encampment. On several key questions the protests and the University’s response resulted in significant changes in the answers from students. 

At the time the encampment was ordered closed by Princeton, PFS made a public statement and wrote an opinion piece in the “Daily Princetonian” supporting the efforts of Princeton’s leadership to clearly communicate, in advance of the protest, its policies relating to free speech and then to enforce those policies. Princeton has not had the problems Columbia, UCLA, and other schools have had. PFS believes this is in large part because of the clear stance Princeton took. While there were a brief takeover of Clio Hall and some actions that clearly violated Princeton policies during reunions and commencement, Princeton still looks better than some other universities. However, President Eisgruber is now drawing criticism for more recent statements that unfortunately appear to be backing off enforcement of penalties for violations of policies by students and faculty. We do not yet know how Princeton will ultimately address clear policy violations.

A second important development this past school year relates to several speakers on the Princeton campus who had generated heated protests and even shout downs at other universities. Riley Gaines, who has criticized the participation of trans women in women’s sports and who was physically assaulted at San Francisco State University, and Judge Kyle Duncan, who was famously shouted down at Stanford Law School, spoke without incident at Princeton. PFS provided support for these events. The University supplied monitors to ensure compliance with its rules on protests. 

Here are some of the key findings of the survey, which are compared with last year’s results when the same questions were asked. 

On many questions, the survey results are about the same as last year. Several key questions, numbers 1 through 5, are designed to test how comfortable students are in expressing their views on controversial topics in various situations. These results are troublesome because they demonstrate that students continue to self-sensor.

For example, on question 5, which asked how often students felt they could not express their opinion on a subject because of how other students, a professor, or the administration would respond, those saying they felt they could not express their opinion fairly or very often increased from 20 to 25 percent.

Very disturbing is the response to question 7, which asks how acceptable it would be to block other students from hearing a controversial speaker (which would be a clear violation of Princeton policy). The number who said it would sometimes or always be acceptable increased from 12 to 17 percent.

Perhaps most troubling is the response to question 9, where the students were asked how clear it was that the administration protects free speech. The number who said it is not very or not at all clear increased from 13 to 31 percent. This is one of the questions where there was a significant change in the answers given before and after the encampment first appeared on campus. After the encampment and the University’s response, a much higher percentage of students questioned whether the administration protects free speech. We believe this shows the continuing need to educate students about free speech. It appears to us that students do not understand that free speech does allow appropriate and targeted regulation of time, place, and manner. 

On three questions, however, the results are more positive than last year. On question 11, those who said they are very or somewhat familiar with Princeton’s free speech rule increased from 52 to 63 percent. Still, should not almost all students be at least somewhat familiar with the free speech rule?

Also encouraging is the response to question 12, where the percentage of students saying that all speech that is protected by the First Amendment should be allowed increased from 29 to 39 percent. However, a larger percentage – 42 percent – said that any speech that uses discriminatory language or that students find offensive or hurtful should not be allowed. Again, this shows the need for more education; a large percentage of students still lack an understanding of basic free speech principles.

Importantly, on question 22, the number of students who think free speech is very important to the mission of the University increased from 36 to 57 percent. This is positive, but the answers to other questions raise the issue of how many students really understand what free speech means.

Question 20 is new to our survey this year. It asked if students agreed with the statement that the exception in Princeton’s free speech rule protecting against genuine threat or harassment should be applied equally to all students.  Seventy-seven percent of students agreed strongly, and 18 percent agreed somewhat with that statement.

Also new was question 23, which asked if students agreed with the statement that it should be harassment in violation of Princeton’s free speech rule to publicly call for the genocide of Jews, or Muslims, or any other religious or ethnic group. This is very similar to the question in the congressional hearing on which the presidents of MIT, Harvard, and Penn equivocated. At Princeton, 69 percent of students strongly agreed with the statement, and 16 percent somewhat agreed.

Institutional neutrality has become a very important issue for universities. This concept holds that universities and their departments should only take positions on matters that directly affect their mission. In recent months, universities have been accused of being inconsistent, and even hypocritical, in taking positions on controversial issues. Now, several leading universities, including UNC, Ohio State and Harvard, have adopted institutional neutrality.

Question 15 provides important information on this debate, information not obtained by any other survey of which we are aware. The question tested the impact on students if the university or the department in which a student is majoring takes a position on an issue. Sixty-one percent of students say they would be very or somewhat uncomfortable expressing disagreement with that position. Clearly taking such positions has a chilling effect on free speech. However, to this point, President Eisgruber has not been willing to support institutional neutrality.

Free speech issues are now among the most important issues to the future of Princeton and other universities. At PFS, we believe there are several straightforward steps Princeton can take to improve the campus atmosphere on free speech and academic freedom and to establish a leadership position on these issue that would attract students, faculty, and prospective employers to Princeton.

There are very credible proposals from leaders on free speech for actions universities should take. For example, Steven Pinker has proposed a five point plan to save Harvard from itself. The “Princeton Principles for a Campus Culture of Free Inquiry” contains recommendations created by faculty from Princeton and elsewhere. “A Vision for a New Future of the University of Pennsylvania” has been signed by more than 2,000 faculty, alumni, parents, and others. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression has a list of ten reforms.

Drawing from these sources and others, PFS proposes that Princeton should take the following steps:

1. It is clear that the faculties of all major universities are wholly unbalanced politically and that this lack of balance has severe ramifications. The situation is only getting worse, in part because of statements required of potential faculty and for evaluating existing faculty that serve as litmus tests that shut out those not subscribing to the campus orthodoxy. These tests, which are often at the department level, should be eliminated at Princeton. MIT, UNC, Florida, Texas, and the faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard have recently eliminated such statements in hiring faculty.

2. For the reasons discussed above, Princeton should adopt institutional neutrality both at the university and department levels, as other universities are doing.

3. As proposed in a recent letter to President Eisgruber from twenty Princeton students, Princeton should create a specific ombudsperson role dedicated to free speech issues. That office should be empowered to act on complaints, not only to prevent harassment, but also to provide for immediate dismissal of any complaint if the speech in question is clearly protected so that speech is not chilled by investigations without purpose, as has recently occurred.

4. Princeton should have an established program for sponsoring speakers and debates that model open discourse. A primary function of PFS is to support such programs with student and faculty groups. But the University, itself, should sponsor programs.

5. During the past two orientations, Princeton has had a program on free speech. Princeton should commit to continuing these programs, while ensuring that they are politically neutral, which was not the case in the last orientation, and discuss in detail Princeton’s free speech policies and the reasons for them.

There have been some positive developments at Princeton, yet our survey shows there are still deep problems. There are concrete, straight-forward steps that Princeton can take to improve the situation and establish a leadership position on what has become a defining issue for universities.

If you would like to support our cause, please click here

1 Response

Norman Ravitch
Norman Ravitch

June 14, 2024

As a retired professor of History at a Univ. of California campus I am most interested in the process I witnessed during my 38 years of tenure of departmental hiring of new faculty. Political correctness was always there in the 1970s and 1980s and thereafter. Before that period there was no political correctness I can recall. Princeton may not be the worst example of this trend. When I was a grad student at Princeton in the period 1957-60 I of course had no insight into how new hires were handled. But our professors then had a variety of issues and positions which I welcomed when I thought about it – or rather when I think about it now.

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