Editorial by Edward Yingling and Stuart Taylor, Jr.
Founders of Princetonians for Free Speech
It has been a very bad year for Princeton on free speech. Its reputation on this critical issue is in tatters. Now we are approaching a new academic year. Will Princeton’s leadership try to live up to the inspiring language of its free speech rule? Or will it continue its recent dismal record? We will have a very good clue at the beginning of the academic year. Princeton may have an orientation that contains a discussion of its free speech rule and the importance of free speech, or it may have something more like last year’s orientation, in which the only presentation covering free speech attacked it.
There is not space in this commentary to cover all the problems at Princeton in recent months involving free speech issues, and therefore we will just present the lowlights in summary form.
In the 2021 College Free Speech rankings issued by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), Princeton was ranked dead last in the Ivy League and a dismal 134 out of 159 nationally.
Then, in January of 2021, the university itself launched an attack on Princeton Professor Joshua Katz over language he used in an article, despite the fact that President Eisgruber had said the language was protected by the University’s free speech rule. This was done in the form of a presentation on racism at Princeton that included Professor Katz in a section about racist speech and contained quotes from other professors attacking him as a racist. Princeton administrators who produced the show even doctored a quote from the article Katz wrote to reinforce the message that he is a racist. And then this presentation was shown to the entire entering class as part of the official orientation.
When it was pointed out by a group of eight professors in an official complaint that this attack clearly violated Princeton’s rules, Princeton administrators came up with an absurd ruling that the presentation was not an attack by Princeton and that it was not an official University document -- despite the fact that it says on its face that it was produced by two University offices; that it was sponsored by ten University offices and departments; that it was placed by University officers on the official Princeton website; that it was conspicuously shown during orientation; and that it contains the trademark and copyright of the University. This ruling went on to reinterpret the University’s free speech rule so that it did not cover Katz and, in the process, gutted its protection for all students and faculty. The ruling was upheld by the Dean of Faculty with no public explanation.
These actions by Princeton, in producing and showing the presentation and in issuing a clearly absurd ruling defending it, were so outrageous that Princeton was strongly criticized independently by the three leading campus free speech groups: The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), and FIRE. Never had all three groups criticized a university over a single action.
In addition, an official ruling of the Committee on Conference and Faculty Appeal also found specifically that the University had violated its own rules in this matter and that an investigation was warranted. President Eisgruber summarily rejected the findings of this faculty committee.
Then, of course, there was the firing of Professor Katz, an action that generated an avalanche of deservedly bad publicity for the University, including an editorial in the Wall Street Journal and a commentary by a Washington Post opinion writer. The firing was extensively covered in the news sections of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and many other publications.
There are other examples of negative coverage of the University over its actions on free speech and academic freedom, but we will just mention one more – the cancelling of an exhibit of Jewish-American art because two of the artists had served in the Confederate Army. Once again, University officials made excuses that did not withstand scrutiny.
And then there was the orientation last year for the class of 2025. Princeton asserts that it is a leader on free speech. If so, why was nothing, not one word, said about its free speech rule in orientation? Surely in today’s climate it would have been worth a few minutes to talk about the importance of free speech on campus. The designers of the orientation found room for a pornographic sex toys presentation, but there was no room for free speech.
In fact, the only presentation in the orientation that addressed free speech, which was shown to the entire entering class, characterized free speech chiefly as a pretext for racist speech, and a professor attacked free speech in a video presentation as “masculinized bravado.”
In short, the recent record of the Princeton administration on free speech is terrible, and the University has suffered significant reputational damage as a result. The upcoming orientation is an opportunity to change paths that should not be missed. There are indications that University officials are considering including a free speech component in orientation. We certainly hope so.
What would a good presentation on free speech look like? First, it should inform incoming students that there is a free speech rule and why there is such a rule. Second, it should include a discussion or debatethat models free speech -- that shows what open discourse looks like and that it can be informative. Too many young students have little or no experience with open discourse.
The next orientation is a key moment for the University. Alumni --- and, we hope, the national media -- will be watching closely.