A newly adopted statement in the University’s “Rights, Rules, Responsibilities” upholding “academic freedom of expression” triggered debate among students and faculty this week.
The statement, which originated as a petition pioneered by professor of mathematics Sergiu Klainerman, has been incorporated into the University’s Principles of General Conduct and Regulations and is located immediately adjacent to sections on academic integrity and diversity and community, University spokesperson Martin Mbugua said.
In response to recent controversies surrounding Urban Congo’s performances and Big Sean performing at Lawnparties, Klainerman said that combatting incendiary speech through civilized debate is an important aspect to fully grasping the freedom of expression.
“There is no better place for young people to acquire these skills than on campus,” Klainerman said.
Having been born and raised in Communist Romania, Klainerman said his advocacy for free speech is in part inspired by his previous experiences.
“I learned how easy it is to pervert seemingly good intentions into a repressive system in which free speech is banned,” Klainerman said. “No other impression was more powerful to me than the sense of freedom I experienced during my first weeks and months in U.S.”
Stanley Katz, a lecturer in the Wilson School,said freedom of expression is indispensable to a democratic institution.
“The biggest challenge confronting many universities nowadays is, ‘How do we preserve the open discourse that is critical to higher education while being respectful of the increasing range of sensibilities of members of the University community?’ ” Katz explained. “It’s gotten a lot more urgent as a result of the increasing heterogeneity of the American society and the Princeton community.”
Katz recalled an incident in the 1990s that sparked controversy over the standard of appropriate speech when some students used a recognizably anti-Semitic term.
“Is the right response to forbid people from making certain statements and to punish them when they do make them?” Katz said. “My feeling is that we always need to err on the side of more speech. In most cases, the remedy for bad speech is more speech. Microaggressions are usually speech checks.”
Katz further explained that though it’s constitutional to forbid hate speech, these expressions need to produce identifiable and measurable harm.
“We should only limit speech when it is damaging to the normal, not to the hypersensitive,” Katz said. “We shouldn’t provide redress for the blows to the head of people who have especially thin skulls. My belief is that most speech is better suffered than forbidden.”
Wilglory Tanjong ’18, however, said she believes the statement speaks to the continual neglect the University has for students of minority cultures and that it grants amnesty for expressions of racism and bigotry, especially in light of “clear and loud disrespect” by the group Urban Congo.
“This statement is a direct result of the deep historical ties the University has to slavery and the oppression of the marginalized,” Tanjong said. “This statement allows the oppression of people of color, what this university was founded on, to continue.”
Tanjong said she believes the statement should be abolished.
“The statement should have no place at Princeton,” Tanjong said. “Although [University] President Christopher Eisgruber [’83] champions this statement, what should be understood is that this statement is here because administration wants it here.”
Eisgruber was not available for comment.
USG president Ella Cheng ’16 said she believes the administration and faculty members should have had better communication with students and considered potential reactions in the process of adopting the statement. Cheng said she is currently working on organizing an open forum to invite administrators and students to discuss potential questions and concerns about the statement.