Campaign urges students to ‘Own What You Think’
So read the message submitted by Margaret Byron ’10 projected on a giant screen on Frist North Lawn on Saturday night. Students on their way to the Street stopped to marvel at this and many other messages on the “Love Wall,” which displayed positive affirmations written by students about themselves and others.
The Love Wall is just one of many initiatives that are part of the “Own What You Think” campaign, spearheaded by Class of 2010 president Connor Diemand-Yauman and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students Thomas Dunne.
While the idea for the campaign was sparked by the anonymous college gossip site juicycampus.com, Diemand-Yauman said his campaign actually seeks to combat gossip in a much broader sense. For him, JuicyCampus, which has stirred much controversy over the past few months, is a symptom of greater societal ills.
“This campaign is not about JuicyCampus,” Diemand-Yauman said. “It’s not,” he repeated, emphasizing the point.
The function of Own What You Think is to bring accountability back to interactions between members of the University community, Diemand-Yauman said.
Last Tuesday and Friday, 250 students participating in the campaign donned black “anonymity = cowardice” T-shirts, protesting anonymous malicious speech in general.
“Whether it be YouTube video comments, blog sites or the bottom of a Daily [Princetonian] article [online], it is so easy for us to make acrid and controversial remarks with no repercussions,” Diemand-Yauman explained.When news of JuicyCampus began to spread, Dunne said, local newspapers were quick to point to the site’s popularity among Princeton students.
This was one of the reasons he felt compelled to stage a response. “By not having any response out there ... it allows people to make their own assumptions about what Princeton students think and feel about this,” Dunne said.
Signing a pledge
On the evening of March 31, the Own What You Think campaign launched its first round of promotions in the form of an online petition, which in part decries “malicious gossip” as “particularly cowardly.”
Dunne initially was not sure how the Own What You Think petition would be received by the student body. “I don’t think we had a real clear sense of what the best strategy was,” he said.
Dunne added, though, that after sending the petition to a handful of students, he began to receive several responses expressing appreciation.
He said the petition is a forum for students who oppose JuicyCampus to dissent. “The vast majority of [targeted students’] peers felt that this type of anonymous character assassination is totally reprehensible,” he said.
The Own What You Think petition also condemns other forms of anonymous hate speech, like purposefully “defacing or tearing down posters on campus” and “writing slurs or other derogatory and hateful messages in common areas on campus.”
Incidents of the sort the campaign hopes to address include a homophobic slur found written in a Holder Hall bathroom in February and an anti-Semitic drawing that appeared on a blackboard in a Bloomberg Hall common area less than a year earlier.
Dunne also said that during the nine years he has been at Princeton, he has regularly received reports of poster defacement.
Last week, Own What You Think launched its first poster campaign, using signs designed by Andy Chen ’09 that proclaim, “You Can’t Take Me Down.” The posters aimed to serve as a “reminder to students that pulling down posters because you don’t agree with their message is an act of censorship,” Dunne said.The petition currently has more than 930 signatures. This week, a second poster campaign will showcase students’ reasons for signing the petition.
Underscoring the problem
Both Dunne and Diemand-Yauman said the campaign met with some initial opposition.
“People did have questions about its impact and whether having a big public response would just draw attention to the site,” Dunne said.
USG president Josh Weinstein ’09 said in an e-mail that the USG informally surveyed students and discussed JuicyCampus several times but eventually decided not to take action as the USG or to promote a campagin against the site primarily because of worries about amplifying “the site’s hype on campus.”Ultimately, Weinstein said that he does not believe “there’s harm in the [Own What You Think] initiative. Several members of the USG have expressed their support of the website’s message.”
Dunne emphasized the importance of taking positive action. “No one’s too naive about the role of a petition,” he said. “[But] being silent on these issues can be seen as an implicit endorsement.”
Diemand-Yauman said he has only received two negative responses to the campaign thus far.
The initial fervor surrounding JuicyCampus has died down somewhat, and Diemand-Yauman believes the decline in the site’s popularity at Princeton is “most likely due to the subpoena” issued by New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram last month. JuicyCampus is currently under investigation for consumer fraud.
Weinstein said that he believes that the announcement of “the Attorney General’s subpoena may have driven a bit of traffic” to the site initially. He added, however, that the site’s popularity had been declining before and after the subpoena.
Though JuicyCampus representatives said in a statement posted on its blog that Milgram’s subpoena was an attempt to “interfere with the free-speech rights of our users,” Dunne and Diemand-Yauman stressed that the Own What You Think campaign addresses a separate issue.
“We wanted to be very clear that [Own What You Think] was not an attempt to thwart free speech,” Dunne said.
“Anonymity does have its place in certain kinds of speech and dialogue,” Diemand-Yauman said. “[But] its overuse is degrading to the intellectual atmosphere at Princeton.”
Though some had initially called for the University to ban access to JuicyCampus on the campus network, Dunne said that the University prefers responding to “poor speech with better, more convincing speech ... by making better arguments.”Other schools, however, are not sure they want to take their chances. Last month, the Columbia College Student Council debated whether to ban access to JuicyCampus from the university’s computer server so that students could not visit the site while on campus.
On the other hand, concerned students and faculty at several college campuses — including Yale, Penn, the University of Nevada and Miami University — have contacted Diemand-Yauman and are looking to follow the Own What You Think model.