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Editorial: Guaranteeing academic freedom

A university is a stage for the clash of ideas through reasoned discourse between those of diverse points of view. Princetonians are diverse in many ways. We differ academically, politically and culturally. Diversity of thought inevitably yields disagreement. But despite our differences and deep personal investment in various debates, we pride ourselves on the ability to engage with one another and develop ideas and values through healthy participation in the University’s intellectual community. We therefore commend the University faculty and President Eisgruber’s administration for passing a motion to include a more comprehensive statement protecting freedom of expression in the University “Rights, Rules, Responsibilities,” and we strongly encourage our peer institutions to follow suit.

The new statement “guarantee[s] all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” The recently passed motion admirably incorporates unequivocal language from a recent report from the University of Chicago. We suggest the University go one step further and wholly replace the existing free speech code in the guidebook with the new statement.

The current code bears a “red light” designation from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, due to policies that “both clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech.” The present language allows for University sanctions against an individual whose verbal behavior “demeans” or “intimidates” another. Though respect for others’ viewpoints is absolutely necessary for constructive campus dialogue, such language is too vague. The new statement still prohibits the most harmful forms of speech that violate the law and threaten others; however, it cuts down on the potentially abusable discretion that the University currently possesses.

As recent examples at other colleges demonstrate, attention to freedom of expression is as necessary now as ever. Last year, Stanford University’s Graduate Student Council first denied funding for an Anscombe Society conference on traditional sexual values and then levied an unprecedented $5,600 “security fee” in an egregious attempt to obstruct freedom academic expression (though the fee was waived after protests). Just last month, a California State Polytechnic University student was apprehended by university police after handing out flyers for animal rights outside of a designated “free speech zone.”

Controversial debates, whether about police brutality, same-sex marriage or other topics, enliven our campus. It is unreasonable and intellectually dishonest to presuppose a consensus on these issues or to expect that no one’s sensitivities will be offended in the course of discussion. Reasonable, good-willed people can and often do disagree. Rather than illiberally empowering University authorities to define which subjects are open for discussion, thinkers of absolutely any opinion should be given the latitude required to make reasoned arguments with due civility.

In protecting the unhindered operation of the marketplace of ideas, the University need not fear that it will cater to hateful or outrageous speech. Such expression will quickly be rebuffed by clear and respectful argumentation from those who see it for what it is and the adopted language gives the University the ability impose time, space, and manner restrictions when appropriate. Flagrantly unlawful speech is controlled under narrow exceptions to the policy that cover threats, defamation, and breaches of privacy. At the same time, Princeton students must accept that not all campus discourse will be comfortable to hear. Broad protection of academic freedom does not favor any one viewpoint in favor of promoting ever more rigorous explorations of truth and meaning. The University only stands to gain by shoring up its defense of free speech, which will help foster the intellectual growth of all Princetonians and present a strong example to other institutions.

In a November 2013 editorial, we called on our community to “recommit itself to upholding the principles of free speech in accordance with the University’s broader educational mission.” We believe that the faculty’s recent vote to affirm the “University’s fundamental commitment ... to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed” is an excellent step in this direction, and we applaud this important decision.

Jill Wilkowski ’15 abstained from this editorial.

The Editorial Board is 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.

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