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The missing piece to the free speech puzzle

<h5>East Pyne Hall, home to many language departments.</h5>
<h6>Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
East Pyne Hall, home to many language departments.
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

When debates about the freedom of speech and expression inevitably arise on college campuses, defenders of free speech explain that the pursuit of truth — the ultimate goal of study — necessitates free speech protections. On the University website, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 explains that “permitting people to speak freely” fosters an environment of “rigorous, constructive, truth-seeking discussions about questions of consequence.” These talking points took center stage earlier this month in a new first-year orientation event, “Free Expression at Princeton,” which was devoted to making the Class of 2026 aware of Princeton’s Freedom of Expression guidelines and their importance. 

Student speaker Myles McKnight ’23, president of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC), took the opportunity to touch on his experiences with free speech issues at Princeton. He argued that he has found the most productive conversations in environments where “interlocutor[s]” did not hold back in their “serious and difficult disagreement.” McKnight urged students to enter Princeton with the goal of “truth-seeking” and to utilize the protections to speak freely in order to fulfill this mission. 

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This is excellent advice, and it is certainly important to encourage incoming students to engage in the most demanding and complex conversations. However, by relying on the comparatively uncontroversial “truth-seeking” argument, McKnight and others who discuss freedom of speech fail to explain one of the much more controversial threats to free speech: the lack of neutrality demonstrated by the University. Institutional neutrality is not as simple to defend or enact. However, it is critical to protecting free speech, and students must be made aware of it.

Princeton has faced several challenging situations regarding free speech in the past year arising from a university employee or department expressing their thoughts and opinions in what could be construed as their official capacities. Though this speech contributes to the pursuit of truth, it can also dissuade those in less powerful positions — those within the department or in non-administrative roles — from speaking up.

The Kalven Report, created by a University of Chicago faculty committee in 1967, takes the position that a university should remain neutral on all controversial issues. The report explains that a university is “the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” Its authors wrote that the university cannot “reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives” and insisted that encouraging members to adopt a certain policy would be unfaithful to its “intellectual inquiry.”

While Princeton has adopted the related Chicago Principles on Free Expression, it has not adopted the Kalven Report. Instead, Princeton proclaims that it “respects and supports the freedom of all members of the University community” to freely discuss any matter that presents itself. And though it also declares that “it is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution” to decide what may or may not be discussed or debated, this line is clearly blurred, and the lack of clarity leaves room for numerous issues to arise.

The Kalven report should be adopted, even though its implementation is complicated. Seriously considering neutrality raises difficult questions regarding the identity of the University. In what ways do faculty and staff represent their employer, and in what ways are they a separate entity? If the University is separate, then who represents it? How may employees — and administrators especially — exercise their right to free speech without compromising Princeton’s neutrality? Adopting the Kalven Report would help direct Princeton to become a more open space where members can express themselves without fear of incurring damaging retribution from powerful places. 

Yet this debate was missing from the “Free Expression at Princeton” event. It’s not a niche issue: the report is central to the largest University free speech controversies of the past year. School of Public and International Affairs Dean Amaney Jamal faced criticism in January for appearing to speak on behalf of the SPIA department to promote a specific view on public events and social justice. Additionally, recently-fired professor Joshua Katz and his supporters have claimed he was targeted for publishing thoughts that go against mainstream views, which were criticized by the classics department and a Princeton website about Race and Free Speech. The classics department was attacked for labeling Katz’s views as “fundamentally incompatible with our mission and values as educators,” and some argued that the website unfairly compared his statements to blackface and other racist actions undertaken in the University over the past 200 years. How can first-years understand the real issues at stake with free expression when they’re not presented with the cases that have sparked the most heated debate?

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First-years should be encouraged to participate in the open dialogue on campus, but they should also understand what the current threats are to that possibility. These days, the neutrality of the University is unclear at best, and ignored at worst. Educating on the purposes of the Kalven Report and advocating for its adoption would not rid Princeton of such controversies, but it would help to support the marketplace of ideas that should be found on Princeton’s campus and contextualize free speech in a clearer way. If first-years were told that some of the controversy surrounding Katz’s firing does not just stem from a complicated debate regarding the “truth” of social justice issues, but rather the role official University websites played in condemning his speech, they would be better equipped to understand the necessity of protections for free speech — and how they may be improved. 

It is a mistake for free speech advocates to solely explain campus controversies in relation to truth-seeking. While some may argue that the pursuit of truth is secondary to ensuring that all community members are welcomed and feel safe, the University is clear on its position: it has no role in “shield[ing] individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” What is unclear and problematic is how representatives of the community can exercise their freedoms appropriately.

The University should adopt the Kalven Report so that departments cannot ostracize their own members through official channels or promote political ends on behalf of the school. And advocates shouldn’t have to shy away from the hardest issues when promoting free speech — they should speak freely on this subject, just as they’d want the rest of us to do.

Abigail Rabieh is a sophomore columnist and prospective history concentrator from Cambridge, Mass. She can be reached by email at arabieh@princeton.edu, on Instagram at @a.rabs03, or on Twitter at @AbigailRabieh.  

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