Last Friday, the Editorial Board criticized the University’s punishment of the men’s swimming and diving team after reports surfaced about the circulation of a series of inappropriate emails among the team. Not refuting the University's conclusion that the distributed material was “vulgar and offensive, as well as misogynistic and racist in nature,” the Board decided that its fear of Princeton students losing their right to spew vitriol outweighs the perpetuation of a deeply racist and misogynistic culture propagated through the mouthpiece of an internationally renowned university.
The Board insists that the “University’s statements on the team’s suspension were vague and did not articulate a full policy on the matter.” But in reality, the University makes it simple, aside from taxing the reader with the obligation to dust off their yearly gift of Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities. The dissent points the reader in the right direction, section 1.2.1:
Actions which make the atmosphere intimidating, threatening or hostile to individuals are therefore regarded as serious offenses. Abusive or harassing behavior, verbal or physical, which demeans, intimidates, threatens, or injures another because of personal characteristics or beliefs of their expression is subject to University disciplinary sanctions as described above.
In contesting the clarity of the University’s policy, the Board did little more than show its own reluctance to search for it. Instead, they advocate for some neo-Hammurabian code that maps distinct and exact punishments to an unpredictable array of infractions. They insist that the University has an obligation to punish only speech which meets the “legal definition of harassment” — despite the fact that this definition is itself contested and adjudicated every day.
Incredibly, the Board cannot seem to fathom that Princeton, a private institution, has reserved the right to enforce its own rules of conduct regarding speech that is clearly harmful to the values of the community. The First Amendment may protect propagators of unsavory rhetoric from government interference, but Princeton has no legal obligation to tolerate this behavior, despite the Board’s unwillingness to admit it. If the Board needs elucidation on how the harmfulness of this speech violates community values, I would happily direct them to a SHARE peer, the Carl A. Fields Center, or any of the other resources laid out in a campus-wide email from Vice President for Campus Life Rochelle Calhoun, aptly titled “Welcome to Princeton.”
Let us not conflate two separate issues that seem to be intertwined in the Editorial: that of the speech of the individual and that of speech by an agent of the University. Even if the Board somehow chooses to reject the agency that the University has to arbitrate these matters in the case of the individual, it should not be so narrow-sighted to insist that those representing the University in uniform — such as an athletic team — should not be held to an even higher standard than the unaffiliated student. Perpetrators of racism and misogyny are not indelibly protected under the guise of “free speech” when they are members of a University-sponsored entity using a University-sponsored means of communication.
The Board fears for a brave new world without paying any mind to the one to which it clings. A culture of misogyny and racism allows celebrities embroiled in sexual harassment scandals to win Oscars and editors of an alt-right pseudo-news outlet to take on positions like White House Chief Strategist. Allowing the inappropriate behavior of the men’s swimming and diving team to continue without repercussion would not be a defense of the First Amendment, but rather a tacit approval of the ugly, engorging underbelly of the toxic take on “free speech” that the Board so fervently defends. The University’s policy is clear, and it was right to take swift action.
Conner Johnson is a sophomore from Camp Hill, Penn. He can be reached at email@example.com.