On Sept. 1, “Free Expression at Princeton,” a new first-year orientation event, was held in McCarter Theater Center, featuring speeches from University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83; Hannah Kapoor ’23, Vice President of the Undergraduate Student Government; and Myles McKnight ’23, President of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition. This event was a direct response to a private letter sent by 46 undergraduates to President Eisgruber that raised concerns regarding the ideological bias found in the mandatory programming for freshmen.
The University should be commended for its commitment to the democratic process. A group of students raised a concern, the administration was willing to listen, and reasonable action was taken when it became clear that this would be in the best interests of the incoming class.
Free speech itself is essential to a healthy democracy. Just as the University responded to student requests to hold this free speech event after a series of robust discussions, democracy works when everyone in society is permitted to voice their opinions, which can then be considered by all. In the pursuit of truth, there needs to be discourse. In the pursuit of the most effective policies, there needs to be discourse — there is no progress without criticism.
This year’s orientation event was a crucial opportunity for Princeton to inform the incoming class of one of its core values, which I argue should be a primary goal and component of any college orientation.
The University has long affirmed its commitment to free speech. In 2015, Princeton faculty voted to adopt the Chicago Principles, which became the University’s statement on free expression. The statement maintains that “Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”
In his speech at this year’s orientation event, President Eisgruber expanded on the original statement, arguing that the remedy to bad speech is more speech (rather than censorship), and that free speech and inclusivity are not conflicting values. Just as this institution has historically made clear to incoming first-years that academic integrity and diversity and inclusion are key aspects of the University’s identity, it laudably has begun including free speech as an additional core value.
An educational institution is tasked with fostering an environment where students not only gain knowledge, but learn to be moral individuals. Academic integrity is one way it does so, through which students learn to have honesty and humility. Learning about and practicing free speech is another way, as it teaches students to be active members of society, listen to others and challenge them when necessary, and create healthy, vibrant communities.
Coming from the leader of a conservative organization, McKnight’s speech could have been mistaken as one promoting a politically motivated value, rather than a value common to everyone. McKnight, however, does not understand free speech to be a conservative or a progressive value, but rather, a “truth-seeking value.” In the university context, he argues, free speech is actually an “academic value,” much like how scholarship is.
Some of the best discussions I have had on campus have been with those who do not share my opinions — discussions that may not have happened without the University’s emphasis on free speech. These discussions have taught me to have a broader, more nuanced view of the world. Many times, the best answer to a challenging situation draws from neither the right nor the left, and other times, the most seemingly extreme positions present the most creative or on-point ideas. Only when all of these views are expressed and entertained can students learn to be more open-minded, curious, and effective problem solvers.
Furthermore, through these discussions, I have been challenged to more fully understand and reflect upon my own positions, allowing me to better defend them. I have learned more from discussions with those who disagree with me than I could ever have hoped for from a textbook or those who hold the same views. I am grateful for the conversations that build me up and affirm my positions, but it is by interacting with those of differing opinions that I grow the most.
Princeton has long been a champion of free speech. However, the University has often failed to live up to its own ideals. Columnists Eleanor Clemans-Cope and Abigail Rabieh both recently emphasized this failure, with Rabieh pointing out that departments and faculty have failed to exercise their freedoms responsibly. Although the University still has plenty of room to grow, the most recent orientation event was a significant point of progress as it simply and clearly laid out the institution’s values and expectations of free speech for students as they begin their Princeton journeys.
McKnight himself defended this position in his guest contribution, highlighting that his address to the freshmen identified “a further requirement of truth-seeking by admonishing students to promote a culture in which dissent is cherished.” In his speech, McKnight recounted two anecdotes in which free speech was rejected and then affirmed, illustrating how, as individuals, students can choose to foster a culture friendly to free speech. One of the protections that free speech offers is for minority opinions to be expressed. Rather than labeling and dismissing McKnight’s examples as “conservative,” it may be a good exercise in healthy civic discourse to give his words a chance.
This event represents a monumental step forward: Princeton has started to proudly affirm its core value of free speech in front of the newest group of Princetonians eager to learn, grow, and be challenged. The University has taken the first step towards helping students be better communicators and civic participants, listening to others with an open mind and courageously defending their own values.
Julianna Lee is a sophomore and prospective politics concentrator from Demarest, N.J. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.