Free speech and its implications seem like fashionable topics for op-eds lately. Debate over free speech is simply unavoidable, from fires in the streets of Berkeley, Calif. to renaming residential colleges in New Haven. That’s all without mentioning the dialogues surrounding fake news, social media, and the activities of the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
However, as much as the public is talking about it, it must be noted just how complicated free speech is. The speech rights enshrined in the First Amendment and the plethora of jurisprudence the court has produced around it represent a convoluted and complicated doctrine of what exactly speech is, and how it should or should not be protected legally and otherwise. Nevertheless, two things are immutable within an open society committed to propagating a marketplace of ideas: free press and rigorous debate. Publishing statements and providing coverage of all sorts of public discourse has held an integral role in maintaining open democratic societies. Whether holding presidential debates or attending White House press conferences (questionable as some in recent times may be), the fourth estate is indispensable to American democracy. While it is not my intention to offer an in-depth societal argument about global free press here, there is something that strikes me as problematic closer to home — here in the Bubble — which pertains directly to debate and public discourse.
There is presently an indefensible and illiberal press policy of the Whig-Cliosophic Society for its Senate debates. I had the pleasure of attending the most recent debate held on Tuesday, Feb. 21 regarding sanctuary cities in which Nicholas Wu ’18 and Diego Negron-Reichard ’18 debated Nicholas Sileo ’20 and Theodore Furchtgott ’18 over the motion, “This house regrets sanctuary cities.” The debate was lively, well-attended, and a good showing of skill in reasoning and oratory. It was a lovely presentation for the Society in front of some of the pre-frosh on campus for Tiger Tuesday. That night’s debate was informative, provided a balanced insight to a pressing modern issue, and was a prideful show of Princeton students’ ability. I would happily bring up points stated and what precisely was informative about the debate, but unfortunately due to the policy of the Society, I cannot. Before the debate began, the Senate President Sinan Ozbay ’19 made clear that the Whig-Cliosophic Society’s policy was that debates are “closed press,” meaning that there can be no direct quotes taken from the speeches made on the floor or by the primary speakers for either party. This policy has limited the News Section of the ‘Prince’ to using only “interviews after the event” to provide coverage on debates. This is a both strikingly illiberal and bad policy.
The Whig-Cliosophic Society, similarly to the Yale Political Union, Columbia Political Union, and other similar debate forums at universities across the Ivy League, should be hubs of intelligent public discourse both regarding their campus communities and political issues more broadly. Why, then, would Whig Clio want to prevent the dissemination of that discourse through press? Surely if a speaker is taking the floor at a debate they are willing to state their positions and put their argumentation up to the scrutiny of the forum. Why then should that scrutiny stop within the walls of Whig Hall? The fact that these student speakers are participating in the debate for a particular side is public knowledge and even advertised for the event. Concern for privacy and therefore safety via anonymity cannot rationally be the reason for this policy. Even if the debate were on the most polarizing of topics, this line of reasoning is a non-starter because the identity of speakers is clearly published and their position made known. Perhaps there might be backlash towards a speaker’s personal position if a particularly abhorrent statement is made, but is that not more reason to allow the press to cover these debates to the fullest? Why should the judgment of a speaker be withheld from the public if that judgment offers further insight to public discourse? The policy certainly is not a protection of free speech within the Senate debates, it only puts a damper on it.
Furthermore, free speech is worthless when no one is listening. When no statements leave a room that has less than 50 people in it, has anything even been said at all? Even when thinking of these debates solely in the context of reaching the entire undergraduate student body, these Senate debates are sadly ineffective as a public forum. The current press policy only shrinks their exposure. When people see these debates, they might actually even consider attending them. There is no denying that publicity for debates can only help them gain popularity. The roster of participants in debates should be constantly infused with new topics and new faces who are informed and opinionated about these topics. Changing the press policy of Whig-Clio Senate debates could help revitalize their status as public forums. I would personally suggest at the very least holding a debate on the press policy. Because if the current policy continues, the forum that is the Whig-Clio Senate debates will continue to be exactly what it is now: a circle of debaters reaching only each other.
Ryan Chavez is a sophomore at Princeton University and can be reached at email@example.com. The sentiments expressed in this column reflect the personal views of the columnist alone, not those of the International Relations Council, of which Chavez is president.