In December 2016, the Princeton men’s swimming and diving team made national news after University officials suspended the team’s season following reports of “several materials” deemed “vulgar and offensive, as well as misogynistic and racist in nature.” This announcement came shortly after Harvard suspended its men’s soccer team over a similar issue. The Board does not condone in any way the actions of either team, yet their suspensions bring up important issues of collective punishment and private speech, especially as they pertain to athletes. Although it is difficult to comment on the individual cases given the lack of available information, the Board believes it is important to articulate general principles about how the administration and teams should act in such cases.
First, the University should have been more transparent about its handling of this incident and its general policies. University statements on the team’s suspension were vague and did not articulate a full policy on the matter. As punishments such as these set precedents for how future issues will be dealt with, the University should increase transparency about its handling of this specific case. Within the limits of confidentiality protections, the administration should outline to other sports teams, both varsity and club, exactly what lines were crossed by the men's swimming and diving team and provide a clear policy on the matter, as this precedent affects all teams.
While the University must provide specific guidelines for its actions in cases such as these, athletic teams need to step up to combat offensive behavior within teams and their communications. Coaches and team members, especially upperclassmen and team leaders, must be accountable for their team’s locker room cultures and set good examples by their own conduct. If derogatory or offensive comments begin to be made frequently, whether in the form of personal conversations, emails sent on a University listserv, or a private group chat, team leaders must be aware and move promptly to address the issue before it becomes part of the pervasive team culture. Limiting offensive comments and materials is much more easily done preemptively, so teams should be proactive in confronting these issues and seek to cultivate an internal culture of responsibility and accountability.
However, this positive culture of self-accountability will be harder to achieve if the University decides to institute a policy of collective punishment in response to offensive remarks made by individual team members, as it did in suspending the entire men’s swimming and diving team. Collective punishment is morally dubious as a practice because it punishes the innocent along with the guilty. And although team members who did not send offensive materials may have had access to them and did not say anything, the University must be sensitive to the fact that those team members could be silenced by team power dynamics or fear of retribution, a fear that would only be exacerbated by a policy of collective punishment. If the University expects teams to be responsible and proactively address issues of team culture, it should refrain from making collective punishment its default policy in these cases.
Finally, while it is essential that team leaders be more active in preventing the incidence of derogatory or offensive exchanges, when this fails, we do not believe the University should take action based solely on such comments made in private contexts. Given the broad and vague sweep many of the University’s current policies take, it is impossible for students to know what conduct would be deemed punishable or not. Moreover, as the University notes in its IT Acceptable Use Policy, “students, for whom the University effectively is a residence during the academic year, normally are afforded a high degree of privacy.” The University must meet its own standard and afford students, including student athletes, the broadest latitude in their speech and free expression in private communications. Comments made in group texts, GroupMe chats, or email exchanges (including those with @princeton.edu) should not be the basis for disciplinary action unless the conduct therein meets the legal definition of a crime. Just as the University should not punish offensive comments made in a private conversation between athletes of a certain team walking along Elm Drive, so too they should not punish athletes or any other students conversing through private electronic channels. This is not to say that harassment should go unpunished, but any private speech that does not meet the legal definition of harassment should not be punished.
The Board rejects a brave new world in which a student offended by an overheard or electronic conversation can make a report that results in a Title IX administrator suspending an entire sports team. We believe that Princeton students, as adults, have the ability to resolve differences that do not arise to the level of a crime between themselves. Language policing by administrative referees undermines the sanctity of private relationships that all students cherish.
We believe the University has a clear and compelling interest in the regulation of misogynistic, racist, and otherwise derogatory speech exchanged between members of the campus community; accordingly, we respectfully dissent.
First, collective punishment is a powerful tool to demonstrate to all University athletic teams and student organizations that the culture cultivated by “locker room talk” is entirely unacceptable. Narrowly tailored, individual punishment for perpetrators implicitly endorses the notion that it is okay to be a bystander; consequently, bystanders stand watch as harmful speech norms are perpetuated in private circles, knowing they are shielded from punishment if such speech is revealed to University administrators. When the punishment for any vile behavior by any member of a student organization is suspension of that organization’s activities, there are internal incentives for bystanders to identify and discourage harmful behavior.
Second, and far more troubling, is the majority’s free speech and privacy advocacy. By the majority’s metric, any “private speech” at the University may only be regulated if it falls under the legal definition of harassment. On principle, we believe the University community is distinct from the broader American political and social community; accordingly, free speech standards for our community are necessarily different.
In this dissent, we do not abandon our advocacy for the broadest latitudes of speech permissibility in academic settings. At the core of any academic community is the mission to seek truth. We do, however, believe that non-academic exchanges through modes of communication such as @princeton.edu listservs and GroupMe forums should be held to a high standard of scrutiny, such as the one established in Section 1.2.1 of Rights, Rules, Responsibilities.
The majority’s attempt to distinguish a private conversation between two students on Elm Drive from public and directed speech falls flat in the context of the University community. What we say is often heard by individuals we do not realize are listening. Further, what we say is entrenched in norms of acceptability. Locker room talk, if not heard by women and sexual minorities, is still wildly harmful because it perpetuates a culture in which perpetrators of locker room talk believe such speech and the opinions underpinning it are accepted and acceptable. The claim that restrictions on such speech will chill political speech on campus is preposterous, and the majority should consider the interaction between speech and the time, space, and manner in which it is spoken.
Carolyn Liziewski ’18, Connor Pfeiffer ’18, Ashley Reed ’18, Dee-Dee Huang ’20, William Pugh ’20, and Cydney Kim ’17
Megan Armstrong ‘19 abstained from the writing of 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 Co-Chairs, the Opinion Editor, and the Editor-in-Chief. It can be reached at email@example.com.