In a recent report published by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the University wasgiven a red light rating— the lowest in the evaluation scheme — for protecting free speech.
Samantha Harris ’99, the director of policy research at FIRE, said the ratings are based solely on the explicitly written policies of the institution.
A red light rating denotes that the institution has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech, Harris said. She added that the description implies that institution’s restrictive codes are applied in all situations, regardless of circumstance.
In the University's case, FIRE noted underscored concerns with the Section 1.2.1 in the University Rights, Rules, Responsibilities booklet,which codifies "respect for others." Particularly, the section enumerates disciplinary actions for demeaning behavior, which can be broadly interpreted, Harris noted.
A segment of the current policy reads that “abusive or harassing behavior, verbal or physical, which demeans, intimidates, threatens, or injures another because of personal characteristics or beliefs or their expression, is subject to University disciplinary sanctions.”
University Media Relations Specialist Min Pullan did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
It is important to note that something subjectively demeaning that may be in fact, be a critical part of the social discussion, Harris said. Condemning such speech may shortchange important conversations, according to Harris.
Additionally, FIRE flagged University regulations that prohibit inappropriate conduct related to sex, gender expression and gender identity. Currently, the University defines them as “unwelcome conduct that may not fall under sexual harassment or sexual exploitation, but that is sexual in nature.”FIRE is not concerned with the University’s definition of sexual harassment, Harris said. However, the possibility of disciplinary action against speech that may not rise to the level of sexual harassment is alarming, she noted.
FIRE also expressed concerns about the University’s Information Technology Policy. According to current policies, students must refrain from “transmitting to others in any location inappropriate images, sounds or messages that are clearly threatening, hostile, or harassing.”
Harris said that as a lot of back and forth debates may be perceived as hostile, this regulation may limit open debate on the issues of public concern.
Josh Zuckerman '16, co-founder of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, also noted that these policies are problematic in theory.
The University has not defined what malicious or defamatory content constitute, Zuckerman explained, and these descriptions can be applied to a wide array of scenarios.
Though these interpretations may not reflect the University’s intent, a student can perceive them as prohibitive, Harris noted, adding that the University should revise these possibilities to clear misunderstanding.
Harris explained that two issues arise with restrictions on free speech. There may be the possibility that future administrations can take advantage of these provisions, making free speech more vulnerable.
“Political winds shift all the time, and people in power tend to want to censor speech they disagree with, and you can’t assume that people in power will always agree with you,” Harris said.
When seeing these policies, students may resort to self-censorship to err on side of caution, she added. Harris described the gradual withdrawal from conversations as the “chilling effect.”
In light of recent campus controversies surrounding the fine line between hate speech and free speech, Harris explained that the latter is not a legally defined category. She said that she believes institutions should always encouraging students to speak about their perspectives, thereby drowning hate speech with more speech.
"We don’t need restrictions on free speech, they will be tested by the market place of ideas,” she said.
While hate speech is absolutely repulsive and has no academic or social merit, it's not the University's job to police what students are saying unless these expressions lead to direct harm, Zuckerman said.
Nonetheless, Zuckerman said that the most of censorship he and members of POCC had experienced came not from the administration, but from students. According to Zuckerman, the University adopted a statement that reaffirms the importance of free speech last semester and, in his opinion, has kept to the commitment with integrity.
These policies are only disturbing if they are interpreted as written, Zuckerman said. Given the confidential nature of disciplinary actions on campus, he cannot recall an instance when a student is investigated for speech-related violations.
McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence Robert George, who recently testified at a House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee hearing on free speech, did not respond to comment by press time.
Politics professor Stanley Katz, who was involved in a petition to reaffirm free of expression last semester, did not respond to comment by press time.
According to a FIREpress release, the report surveyed 440 colleges and universities across the country and found that 49.3 percent of these institutions have policies that seriously infringe upon students’ right to free speech.