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Editorial: Eisgruber and hate speech

Princeton is not perfect. We have persistent problems with race, gender and class that affect members of our student body every day. Far too often, it falls upon the most affected groups to work alone to combat these problems. The fact that the University shares this dynamic with the rest of society does not make the situation excusable. We can do better, and we should do better. Being in the service of a righteous cause, however, does not exempt activists from criticism. We, the Editorial Board, disapprove of the misconstrual of the words of University President Eisgruber ’83 during the protest at the Chapel on Sunday and commend Eisgruber for his thoughtful response to the discussion surrounding Urban Congo and Big Sean.

The protesters on Sunday willfully chose to misinterpret Eisgruber’s statement that “the controversies [comedy, satire and state performances] provoke may be genuinely painful, but they are also fundamental to the life of any great University.” One protester held a sign with the phrase “[Racism] is also fundamental to the life of any great University” and several others (including those who penned the manifesto) referenced the quote using the same reading. The protesters read the quote in this way out of a misguided belief that Eisgruber meant this to say that performances such as the one by Urban Congo are essential to the well-being of the University.

However, the previous line of the email, which reads “Comedy, satire, and stage performances inevitably transgress boundaries,” reveals this is not the case. Performances such as the one by Urban Congo are in extremely poor taste, and Eisgruber’s own email quotes a group member describing them as “inexcusably offensive.” The protesters are right that hate speech and vitriol are not part of a thriving University.Rather, it is the discussion of the boundaries they cross that is essential to our University. It is important for us, both as thinkers and as members of society, to engage in such discourse, which is precisely what Eisgruber references in his email. We believe that discussions about what constitutes hate speech are important and productive.

Furthermore, the protesters’ logic is suspect. In labeling discussion about what constitutes hate speech as itself hateful, they assume a resolution to that discussion that does not exist. Their flagrant misquoting of Eisgruber’s response is intellectually dishonest because it refuses to engage in the relevant question of what should and should not be labeled as hate speech. The protesters are eager to call a class of speech they detest hateful, but they give no way for us to adjudicate what is and is not hate speech. While their discussion is rooted in the need to protect vulnerable students, they ignore the long history of hate speech codes being used to protect the powerful from the powerless. Saying that we reject hate speech is the easy part of this argument, but the hard part is defining what we reject. While the Urban Congo performance was clearly tasteless, there is often a blurry line between acceptable artistic expression and offensive speech, as illustrated by the mixed response to Big Sean headlining Lawnparties.

Activism is an important tool for advancing ideas, and it finds an important home in our protections for free speech. However, activism is not immune from criticism and, in this case, we think that the protesters misconstrued what was a commendable response from Eisgruber. Hate speech has no place in our society, and it has no place in our University; however, conversations about what hate speech is and what we should do about it are important and vital to any community. These conversations can be painful and uncomfortable, but they are necessary if we are ever to make progress towards resolving social issues of our time. We, the Board, have always believed that only through open and fair discussion of our problems can we join together to solve them. We commend Eisgruber for his thoughtful response reminding us of that need.

Andrew Tsukamoto '15 and Jill Wilkowski ’15 abstained from this editorial.

TheEditorial Boardis an independent body and decides its opinions separately from the regular staff and editors of The Daily Princetonian. The Board answers only to its Chair, the Opinion Editor and the Editor-In-Chief.