Roughly two dozen Princeton University students recently signed an open letter in defense of academic freedom and free speech. The letter opposes a list of demands issued on June 22, 2020 by students of the School of Public and International Affairs (“School”). The demands include starting a process for the payment of reparation “to the descendants of people enslaved by the University’s presidents and donors, as well as the historically Black neighborhood of Witherspoon-Jackson destroyed by the Universities’ actions.” It also included a demand for anti-racist training at least once per semester for all faculty (including tenured professors), staff, preceptors, and administrators.
Like the original letter, the countervailing letter contains positions and rhetoric that I disagree with. However, the thrust of the letter is to object that the demands reflect encroachments on academic freedom and free speech. It also foreshadowed the response to the letter:
“To brand one side of these important debates as ‘racist,’ ‘offensive,’ or ‘harmful’ and seek the ‘training’ of those who hold alternative or ‘unacceptable’ views is to rig the game well before it has begun and weaponize the administrative apparatus of the University against those who would doubt, question, or challenge the reigning orthodoxy of the day and age. This would strike a fatal blow to the very heart of higher education, the first principle of which is that there ought to be no safe space or shelter at a university ‘in which any member of the community is ‘safe’ from having his or her most cherished values challenged.'”
Again, as a site committed to free speech and academic freedom, we are more focused on the ability to voice such views than the relative merits of the two opposing positions. There is a rising orthodoxy on our campus where dissenting voices are being subjected to abuse or retaliatory actions. Universities are quick to issue statements of support during these protests but have been conspicuously silent as conservative or libertarian or simply contrarian students are attacked for their views.
In this case, the students signing the letter have reported that their pictures and backgrounds have been used in a concerted campaign for abuse. We have seen this repeatedly on campus where students and faculty have sought to silence those with opposing views by labeling them as racists or preventing them from speaking.
They have been called “racists” and “fascists” on Princeton listservs and social media.
Of particular concern is report that one of the 22 signers, Jack Warden, lost a potential internship with a major business firm after his contact at the company heard about his signing the letter. The College Fix states that it read the email that referred to the company’s commitment to “social justice” and “rooting out bias.” It would not however respond to the media inquiry on whether it punished a student for voicing his position and whether the company’s committee to social justice is accompanied by a commitment to free speech.
Once again, as with Georgetown, I am most concerned about the silence of Princeton as its students report a campaign of abuse and lost opportunities. Would Princeton and its faculty remained silent if the students who signed the original letter were the targets of harassment or reportedly denied jobs?
Administrators and faculty have stood by silently in the face of such abuse rather than risk any criticism or campaign targeting them. It is a choice of silent acquiescence to avoid any personal or institutional costs for standing in defense of free speech. These students are just treated as expendables. As I have said before, I have never seen the current level of intimidation and fear among faculty in thirty years of teaching. These campaigns have worked. Students and faculty alike have been silenced by the threat of being called racist or the subject of another petition campaign. They have chosen to remain silent pedestrians as colleagues and students are abused.
The fact that Princeton (an institution with one of the largest endowments in the world) has remained silent is particularly chilling. If Princeton is cowed by these pressures, it is hard to imagine other schools summing up the courage to defend free speech or academic freedom.