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Does Princeton protect progressive speech, too?

<h5>The Princeton University Chapel&nbsp;</h5>
<h6>Genrietta Churbanova / The Daily Princetonian&nbsp;</h6>
The Princeton University Chapel 
Genrietta Churbanova / The Daily Princetonian 

As soon as the Class of 2026 arrived on campus, Princeton’s administration plunged us into a series of orientation events. Among the presentations about University values, one stood out: “Free Expression at Princeton.” It was early in Orientation, it was required, and University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 addressed our class for the first time — the administration clearly prioritized it. 

First-years filled McCarter Theatre; from the stage, President Eisgruber read at length from the University’s Statement on Freedom of Expression and student speaker Myles McKnight ’23, president of Princeton Open Campus Coalition, a group known to host conservative events, encouraged students to stand up for free speech and be open to challenge in pursuit of finding “truth.”

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Calls for free speech on campus are not new, and neither are the anxieties that often provoke them. At least since the second Red Scare in the late 1940s, the United States has been concerned with “liberal indoctrination” in higher education. Recently, this has manifested as panic over professors teaching about racism, concern about hostility toward conservative views on campus, and alarm surrounding “safe spaces.” In 2015, Princeton adopted the University of Chicago’s principles, a policy change publicly celebrated particularly by right-leaning professors. 

Given the history of conservative anxiety on college campuses, paired with the speakers chosen for the orientation event, the University has made clear it will protect conservative speech. This is a good thing; it’s important that the University, with all of its power, does not censor. But it raises a question: Will Princeton protect progressive speech, too?

Princeton’s Statement on Freedom of Expression grants “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn,” with one major exception: when “limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University” (other “narrow” exceptions exist for scenarios like defamation, genuine threats, and privacy violations). Limiting speech to the “functioning of the University” may seem innocuous, but it effectively means that the University places itself above free speech. Thus the speech that is least free is speech that dissents from the University and its modus operandi. 

Progressive activism is inherently disruptive. Seeking to undermine oppression and affirm everyone’s “humanity and right to exist, in the face of systems that deny universal humanity demands the creation of trouble. Conservatism, on the other hand, seeks to maintain the status quo, or turn back time. Progressivism is inextricably linked to protest. 

Progressive, anti-racist, radically inclusive ideas are almost always met with resistance from authority. Disruptive protest was a critical tool for civil rights, labor, and feminist movements, and it’s also a vital tool for activists here on campus — the Black Justice League and Divest Princeton are two recent examples of important campus protest movements. In his podcast series “History is US,” Professor of African American Studies Eddie S. Glaude Jr. describes progressives’ burden in this moment as “going beyond having difficult conversations across party lines and finding middle ground. We are called to imagine America anew, and that will mean … committing ourselves to the struggle to birth something new.” Progressives have to make what John Lewis called “good trouble,” peaceful disruption necessary to bring the University community to consciousness, attention, and action. 

To some extent, limitations on disruption are understandable: Princeton has an ethical responsibility to function as a place where students can learn and academics can research at their fullest capacity. But the University’s limitations are far too strict to allow for peaceful and productive dissent, and the punishments that students risk for breaking them are unclear. According to the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, “the University reserves the right to determine the time, place, and manner” of protests and generally bans campouts occupying outdoor space, blocking any kind of pedestrian traffic, and forms of amplified sound. A fellow Divest Princeton activist Nate Howard ’25 told me he has experienced activists being told to not place flyers on buildings and to not use bullhorns at protests that occurred in the middle of the day. These occurrences are treacherous infringements of free speech.

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When it comes to progressive critiques of and protests against University decisions, another issue is introduced: the very people whose behavior campus activists seek to change are in charge of how activists are punished, with little in official policy to guide or restrict them. Rights, Rules and Responsibilities says simply that students who break the rules of protest can be subject to “being barred from campus and/or arrested” and that “wherever possible, such decisions will be made by officers of the University,” a group that includes President Eisgruber and Dean of the College Jill Dolan

Since Princeton’s administration is in charge of deciding what speech and protest should be protected and what should not, it follows that speech challenging the administration’s authority is most at risk. The lack of clear punishments for violations means that campus activists don’t reliably have the information they need to decide whether to engage in civil disobedience: when punishments are unknowable and could be extremely severe, it’s hard to assess risk. The lack of standardization and transparency in punishment also means that people of color are at higher risk. As Brittani Telfair wrote in 2020, recalling the Black Justice League’s 2015 sit-in in Eisgruber’s office, “not all are equally protected when attempting to speak freely … minorities fighting for change are often not protected when exercising [free speech].”

At the orientation event about free speech, the speakers emphasized students’ responsibility to uphold free speech on campus, and McKnight commented that “formal protections for free speech are important, but the informal culture … can be even more critical.” In reality, he has it exactly backwards: It’s important that students value and uphold free speech in their individual interactions, but it is the University that has the most power, and therefore it is the University that bears the most responsibility for ensuring that it doesn’t use that power to trample on student speech. 

Princeton’s “free speech” policy doesn’t allow for enough peaceful disruption; it has extremely restrictive rules about protest; and it has ill-defined punishments for violating those rules. The University has made it clear that while it may be committed to freedom of speech when it comes to right-wing controversial speakers, professors making racist remarks about students, and seminar discussions, it is not interested in cultivating an environment in which real and necessary dissent against the system is safe. Even as it claims to listen to all voices, the University can still shut its ears to progressives and still shut us down.

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Eleanor Clemans-Cope (she/her) is a first-year from Rockville, Maryland intending to study economics. She spends her time making music with Princeton University Orchestra and good trouble with Divest Princeton. She can be reached on Twitter at @eleanorjcc or by email at eleanor.cc@princeton.edu.

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