The Princeton Free Speech Union Declaration & Charter


A Declaration and Charter

Faculty, students, and alumni of Princeton University have come together to create the Princeton Free Speech Union to promote and defend the core values of free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity at Princeton. These core values are fundamental to the very concept of a university and to the democratic ideals of our country.

In 1860, Frederick Douglass delivered a lecture in Boston’s Music Hall, “A Plea for Freedom of Speech.” In it, Douglass issued one of the most eloquent defenses of free speech ever provided by an American. “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down.” In fact, Douglass added, if free speech had been allowed to prevail in the Southern states that legalized slavery (and banned open discussion of slavery, and even censored the mail), it “would banish the auction block and break every chain in the South.”1  Behind Douglass stands a long line of thinkers who, like Benjamin Franklin, understood that “Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as publick Liberty, without Freedom of Speech”; beyond Douglass stands an equally long line of eloquent defenders of free speech, from George Orwell (“If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”) to Vaclav Havel (“Courage in the public sphere means that one is to go against majority opinion…in the name of the truth”).2

Although the suppression of free speech is often associated with the advocates of slavery or totalitarian rule, suppression has, in more recent times, become the response of those who deem speech they dislike as “harmful” or even a form of “violence.” And so, we have come together to create the Princeton Free Speech Union, motivated by the conviction that a Union devoted to the promotion and protection of free speech is an essential exercise, not only of a liberal democracy, but of conscience itself. We also believe that a Union based on a major university campus is particularly desirable, since (as the Stone Report at the University of Chicago stated in 2014), “the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.” 3

We know Princeton University, as our home, to be one of those institutions which has made a “fundamental commitment…to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”4  Above all, we have been moved by our concern that calls to compromise this principle have been put forward in the name of suppressing offense (sometimes rebranded as “harm”), and are conscious of efforts by some to subject members of the Princeton community to stigma, sanction, and intimidation for holding views branded in this fashion. To this, we reply that any appeal to the language of offense constitutes what Michael Polanyi called a “moral inversion,” in which the language of offense can be, and is often, deployed as a stratagem for silencing legitimate dissent.5  What we strive for in the creation of this Union is a campus free of fear and intolerance, where uninhibited inquiry, civil dialogue, and robust discussions between Princetonians of all persuasions may be fostered. To that end, we endorse the Chicago Principles on free speech—not just the adoption of those principles, which Princeton has done, but the actual adherence to those principles, where Princeton needs to do better.

We also believe that a subtle but destructive threat to free inquiry occurs when a university official, acting in his or her official administrative capacity and thus in the name of the University, takes positions on matters of reasonable public debate which have no tangible bearing on the execution of the university’s mission. Individuals within the university community should feel free to debate these issues openly. But when the university itself takes a position on such issues, it stifles discourse by establishing a campus orthodoxy and, in virtue of it, a set of “tolerable” and “intolerable” viewpoints, thus suggesting boundaries on the scope of acceptable discourse. We therefore endorse the principles of institutional neutrality set forth in the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report.6 

We have created our Union as an informal association of Princeton University faculty, students, and alumni who, while pursuing differing political, cultural, and professional goals, are united by the will to strive individually and collectively to build an authentic culture of free speech on the Princeton campus. We have no commitment to formal political organization or actions, nor do we represent or defend any one particular political ideology or path of action. We see as our basic activities:
•    Programming on the Princeton campus and in the Princeton community which explains, defends, and models the principles and components of free speech, civility, honorable expression, and the pursuit of truth.
•    Defense of the free speech rights of all members of the Princeton University community, whether or not they are members of our Union or share our commitment to free speech, confident that in free and fair debate, the truth has the best chance of prevailing.

The Union consists of a federation of three groups: On behalf of faculty, there is an informal coalition of professors of all ranks who have been discussing these core values for several years; on behalf of students, there is the Princeton Open Campus Coalition; and on behalf of alumni, there is Princetonians for Free Speech. Each of these groups is non-partisan and supports free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity for all. Leaders of these three groups will constitute the coordinating committee of the Union. Interested Princeton faculty, students, and alumni should contact the relevant group.

We call upon members of the Princeton University community who share our commitment to free speech to join, support and encourage us in this endeavor. We ask for your solidarity in standing up for the imperishable principles of free speech that are the beacon-flame of democracy and the life’s-blood of scholarly research, principles that respect the dignity and rights of persons and honor the cause of truth-seeking by zealously guarding its conditions.


Princeton, New Jersey

  1 Douglass, “A Plea for Free Speech,” The Liberator (December 14, 1860).
  2 Franklin, “Silence Dogood, No. 8” (July 9, 1722), in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. L.W. Labaree ((New Haven, CT, 1959), 1:27; Orwell, in George Orwell: Into the Twenty-First Century, eds. Thomas Cushman & John Rodden (New York, 2016), 161; Havel, “Interview: On Leadership and Courage” -- sttp/defenders/vaclav-havel/.
  3 Stone Report (Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression): University of Chicago, “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression,” July 2014
  4 “Princeton's Commitment to Freedom of Expression” --
  5 Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty (London, 1951), 106.
  6 We believe that these principles are appropriate and desirable for non-sectarian institutions of learning, be they public or, as in the case of Princeton University, private. We do not here address the question of what norms are appropriate for religiously affiliated colleges and universities whose missions include the propagation of teachings or doctrines of a tradition of faith.