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Over the summer, the University amended its No Communication and No Contact Order (NCO) policy. Students are now required to reach out to the person they want an NCO against before requesting an order. After The Daily Princetonian reported on this development, much has been said — and much misunderstood — about it. Some have suggested that the University was bullied by the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC) into the change. Well, as the president and vice president of the POCC, let us say: If we bullied the University, we must have done so in an alien language, because our message went unreceived. The new policy is not one we advocated for, and it is as stupid as it sounds.
True, the policy change is related to a situation we faced last spring. After we questioned activists at an anti-Israel protest, we were both served with No Communication Orders. Our questions, though heated, fell well within the scope of acceptable civil discourse, and our exchanges were typical of public protests on hot-button issues. One of us, Danielle Shapiro ’25, was handed an order on the basis of an activist’s gripe with her journalistic work. Several other students were served with similar NCOs.
We vehemently objected. We were aghast that University bureaucrats were willing to bend a knee to students seeking to abuse a harassment-prevention system in order to insulate themselves from dialogue in public fora. The argument we presented to administrators was simple — the speech that served as the basis for the orders is protected by Section 1.1.3 of Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities, which reads: “the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive….[C]oncerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas.” Section 1.1.3 also notes: “members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus.”
Such protected speech should never be the basis for the granting of an NCO. The speech promoted in Section 1.1.3, including politically controversial speech, is vital for the health of academic life and the University’s truth-seeking mission. To the University’s credit, the NCOs were lifted within weeks of the protest.
The University changed its NCO policy in August, four months after we raised our concerns to the administration. The University now requires students to “first employ honest, direct, and civil dialogue as a means of resolving conflict.” Only when conflict persists “after an individual has requested in writing to the other individual that they do not wish to be in contact” can a student request an NCO. And this rule includes an appropriate caveat: “an individual with concerns related to sexual misconduct is not expected to engage with the other party prior to seeking a No Communication or No Contact Order.” That’s a good thing: students who face sexual harassment, assault, stalking, and exploitation should not be required to reach out to their aggressors before requesting an NCO.
But the new policy collapses as ludicrous under the most minimal scrutiny. First, it leaves open the possibility of attaining an NCO on the basis of any sort of disagreement whatsoever, including disagreement promoted by Section 1.1.3. Even today, POCC members and Princeton Committee on Palestine members could seek NCOs against each other based on civil disagreements that are supportive of the truth-seeking enterprise. Why should civil disagreement at a public protest ever be the basis for an NCO? The policy leaves this question unanswered and the corresponding problem unsolved.
Second, the policy’s exception for cases of sexual misconduct is too narrow. Harassment comes in more forms than just sexual, and there are many forms of unprotected speech that could be the basis for a justified NCO. In fact, Section 1.1.3 names several of them: “The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.”
Why should the victim of harassment, threats, or privacy invasions have to be in touch with their aggressor before requesting an NCO? Why does one standard apply to sexual harassment and another to forms of equally reprehensible but non-sexual misconduct? A recent guest op-ed written by AJ Lonski ’23 lends credence to the prediction that the new policy will burden many students for whom an NCO could be the appropriate remedy. Will such students be less likely to seek an NCO when they fall prey to deplorable treatment? If so, the University will bear the shame.
We think the NCO policy should have been amended to clarify that civil disagreement per se — and especially civil political disagreement in public contexts — is never an appropriate basis for an NCO. In other words, the policy should have clarified that the scope of “conflicts” meriting NCOs is limited by our University’s commitment to protecting discourse. Not all conflicts are bad or “unsafe,” and many are healthy. Section 1.1.3 deftly articulates this principle while affirming traditional, justified prohibitions on harassment and the like.
In sum, the new policy is positively unhelpful and recklessly harmful. There was an easy solution to the issues we raised last spring: clarify that NCO policies must be implemented in harmony with University speech protections. Instead, the administration opted for a thoughtless approach that will harm students along the way.
Myles McKnight ’23 is a politics major and the president of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition. He can be reached at email@example.com. Danielle Shapiro ’25 is the vice president of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.