Just before Princeton students returned to campus this year, an open letter signed by 16 Ivy League professors appeared online, calling on inbound college first-years to “think for yourself.” Though the call to think critically and maintain an open mind is benign on its surface, the letter is in reality a thinly veiled call for resistance against progressive campus activism. Our own professor Robert George, a signatory of the letter, removed all doubt of this when he appeared on Fox News’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on a segment titled “Professors to Class of 2021: Stop being snowflakes.” Neither the letter nor George’s televised comments ever call out the social justice movement by name, but the dog-whistle is unmistakable.
As a graduate student in the Wilson School (whose logo features prominently behind George in his Fox News appearance), I felt dismayed after reading the letter. Are these the trenches we are doomed to fight in forever? Are we trapped in perpetuity between the cause of justice, on one side, and free speech on the other? Indeed, critics have long charged campus social justice movements with being anti-free speech due to demands, for example, to label course readings with “trigger warnings” and cancel lectures by controversial speakers. The social justice movement, for its part, has failed to answer those charges. If anything, many activists seem to accept that free speech is a necessary casualty in the struggle for justice.
Instead, what social justice activists must argue, and what their skeptics must understand, is that free speech requires boundaries to protect those who engage in it. Like any market, the marketplace of ideas is susceptible to market failure if left unregulated. If we are serious about guaranteeing everyone the right to speak freely, then we cannot tolerate speech that victimizes individuals and vulnerable groups by inciting physical violence against them or by otherwise silencing them. Oliver Wendell Holmes famously pronounced that free speech does not give you the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Laws, institutional policies, and socially determined taboos all define boundaries that separate “legitimate” speech from speech than can harm members of our community. The question now is where those boundaries should be, and more importantly, who gets to decide where those boundaries lie.
The professors who signed the letter have overlooked two things. First, they seem to assert that all ideas should enjoy equal legitimacy in intellectual discourse, when that has never been true in any academic forum. They call on students to “to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions.” Would they extend such fair-minded treatment to the “strongest arguments” for eugenics? For slavery? For fascism? We do not reject those ideas because they have somehow been intellectually disproven. We reject them because they threaten the humanity of people who are entitled to an equal and secure place in our community.
Second, these professors fail to see that the boundaries that separate “legitimate” speech from harmful speech have historically been determined by a narrow segment of the population — one that is overwhelmingly white, male, and straight. The rest of our pluralistic society engages in speech subject to ground rules that they had no part in making. White taboos forced then-Sen. Barack Obama to disavow the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, but allow a football team to be named the “Redskins.” Male taboos excuse boasts about sexually assaulting women as “locker room talk,” while labeling assertive women “bitchy.” Heteronormative taboos frown on public displays of same-sex affection but tolerate jokes that use the term “gay” as a pejorative. The ground rules will naturally shift once underrepresented groups have the chance to shape them. To those who fail to see anything wrong with how the boundaries were previously drawn, these shifts will no doubt look like assaults on free speech.
The social justice community, for its part, will continue to evolve and mature. There is real peer pressure within the activist community to adhere to certain ideological maxims or outdo one another’s “radicalism” in order to avoid shame. On this score, the letter’s criticism contains a grain of truth. But addressing that criticism cannot entail, as the signatories seem to desire, placing all arguments on an equal moral plane for the sake of “robust debate.”
These are not trivial tiffs stoked by PC-crusaders gone amok. Rather, these are questions that necessarily emerge once we recognize that the ground rules of free speech were drawn up without the input of underrepresented groups. Bringing those groups to the table will require revisiting the ground rules, and revisiting the ground rules will be a messy, anguished process. Until that process is complete, however, neither justice nor freedom will be fully served.
Andi Zhou is a second-year master’s student in the Wilson School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.