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New University orientation event on free speech garners mixed reaction among first-years

<h5>Whig Hall under the faint glow of a Tuesday morning sunrise.</h5><h6>Timothy Park / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Whig Hall under the faint glow of a Tuesday morning sunrise.
Timothy Park / The Daily Princetonian

As part of the University’s series of required orientation programming for first-year students, the Class of 2026 participated in one new event, “Free Expression at Princeton,” which featured an address from President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, as well as student speakers Hannah Kapoor ’23, Vice President of the Undergraduate Student Government, and Myles McKnight ’23, the president of Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC). 

First-years’ reactions to the required event were mixed, with some saying the event was helpful in introducing the value of free speech to orientation programming and others questioning whether the event was productive for students.

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In his speech, McKnight argued against feeling “intellectually comfortable,” discussed political polarization, and stressed the importance of free and “open dissent” in campus discourse.

He recounted two incidents, one that he said was positive and another he said was negative, regarding his personal experiences with free speech on campus. As the positive, McKnight recalled engaging in a civil back-and-forth with a former columnist for The Daily Princetonian about the POCC’s letter in the summer of 2020, which opposed a series of then-proposed racial equity demands. As the negative, McKnight recounted an incident in which he said a student activist filed a “no communication order” against him through the University.

The event description stated that “free expression is a foundational value at a university,” and billed it as an exploration of “how Princeton articulates this value, why [it] is important to our work as scholars, and how it aligns with our principles as an inclusive community.”

Jack Geld ’26 told the ‘Prince’ he walked away from the event “definitely in support of an open dialogue on campus, about all different sorts of ideas.”

Other students raised concerns about the event, like Kalena Bing ’26 who said that she felt that speakers had not been clear about exactly what they were saying.

“I do feel that free speech is important,” Bing said. “However, I feel that some of the speakers tiptoed around topics and weren’t really open about what they were trying to say, maybe for fear of their opinion [not being] accepted or shared by the majority, but I felt it was kind of strange. Like you’re having a free speech discussion but you’re not really being open.”

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Diego Uribe ’26 said he felt similarly, remarking that, “Clearly something transpired a few years ago. I thought it was interesting that he was just really vague with what he was talking about.”

In response to these sentiments, McKnight told the ‘Prince’ that, “Both of the examples I referenced, I construed at a level of generality, with a view towards protecting the privacy interests of the students involved in those examples on all sides.” 

He added, “So, in my view, I gave all the details necessary in order to explain what are the lessons that can be taken away.”

Yet other students felt more unresolved about the event.

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Sheryar Fazal ’26 said, “Most of us found what they were saying to be unpalatable and something you ought not to say, but also we all kind of agree on the fact that some of these things are necessary to talk about.”

McKnight disagreed, commenting that, “All I can say is that there's a huge logical inconsistency there.”

The POCC was founded in the fall of 2015 in response to protests led by the Black Justice League, a former Black student activist group, which the POCC believed would “potentially infringe on the free speech rights of students and faculty.” The group reformed after hiatus in the summer of 2020. More recently, in the previous academic year, events hosted by the POCC included “Mob Rule: The Illiberal Left’s Threat to Campus Discourse” and the invitation of Abigail Shrier, author of “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” the latter of which sparked campus controversy and a counter-event organized by the Gender + Sexuality Resource Center.

The event was held before the Class of 2026 at McCarter Theatre Center on Sept. 1.

Laura Robertson is a Staff News Writer for the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at lr15@princeton.edu.

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