Latest News and Commentary: Princeton

February 13, 2023
By Myles McKnight '23
Princetonians for Free Speech

In a recent column for the Daily Princetonian, Eleanor Clemans-Cope ‘26 declared: “Princeton’s free speech problem is imaginary.” An odd conclusion, seeing as she very recently insisted that Princeton suppresses progressive speech. She promotes her newfound position by attempting to debunk the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)’s annual free speech ranking, in which Princeton is ranked at a dismal 169 out of 203. But Clemans-Cope’s account is so riddled with fallacy, I’m afraid, that one is left to wonder whether her conclusion was predetermined and her argument a post hoc rationalization. 

Clemans-Cope attributes our low ranking to surveyor deceit. First, she reminds us that Princeton has the same official speech code as the University of Chicago (ranked No. 1), and therefore suggests we should get full points for the “speech code” component of the ranking. But a speech code isn’t worth the paper it's written on if University bureaucrats give it no teeth, and Princeton’s speech code itself was only one factor among many considered for this component of the ranking. FIRE audits a vast array of university policies, scanning for those which, apart from official speech codes, bear negatively on the state of academic freedom on campus. Unless Clemans-Cope had access to FIRE’s Princeton-specific “speech code” audit (she did not) her attempt to criticize this aspect of Princeton’s ranking is flatly unserious.

Second, Clemans-Cope reasonably speculates that FIRE penalized Princeton for its treatment of Joshua Katz, but claims they were wrong to do so. Clemans-Cope spells out no argument here whatsoever, so I can offer very little in the way of a response. I nonetheless invite readers to consider two things: first, this investigation by Aaron Sibarium into the University’s treatment of Professor Katz. Importantly, Sibarium is the only person not affiliated with the University to have reviewed the thousands of documents pertaining to the Katz case. Let the reader judge whether Clemans-Cope is too quick to dismiss Katz. Second: as Clemans-Cope notes, the overwhelming majority of media outlets to have covered this issue (conservative and liberal alike) have rebuked Princeton for its persecution of Professor Katz. Outside the Daily Princetonian’s newsroom, consensus does not favor the University’s conduct.

Finally, Clemans-Cope criticizes the survey’s “disruptive conduct” component. Princeton ranks low on this measure, but Clemans-Cope criticizes FIRE for not actually measuring how often students exercise their “first amendment (sic) rights to civil disobedience” by actually shouting down speakers.

Lay aside the fact that she overlooks the “time, place, and manner” principle, an elementary First Amendment doctrine that allows for some restrictions on disruptive speech. Clemans-Cope also butchered this principle in another column suggesting that the University suppresses progressive speech. Obviously, limiting disruption often enhances the free exchange of views. But the really interesting fallacies are these: 

First, the FIRE survey measures attitudes toward disrupting speech. So it’s no real criticism to simply shift the discussion to “instances” of disruption, as Clemans-Cope does, without making the case for the irrelevance of “attitudes.” Attitudes matter. Determining the number of students who think it’s acceptable to shout down speakers isn’t just about predicting the likelihood that controversial speakers will be shouted down; it’s key to understanding how viewpoint diversity is regarded in general. Rampant hostility toward intellectual diversity has a tendency to infect academic cultures with closed-mindedness and anti-intellectualism. Such infection translates to chilled speech and acts of suppression often too subtle to be measured in a survey like FIRE’s.

In other words, the relevant “instances” corresponding to the measured “attitudes”  aren’t just overt speaker disruptions like the 2012 example Clemans-Cope cites. They include every single instance of a student opting not to voice his or her opinion for fear of reproach; every single time a student is excluded from a purportedly non-political group (e.g., an extracurricular community, an eating club) on the basis of his or her political views; every time a professor or preceptor applies a heightened grading standard to papers taking unpopular positions; every instance of bullying or rejection on the basis of unpopular religious values and commitments, and so on. Clemans-Cope ignores the importance of attitudes and culture—the theme of the speech I delivered at this year’s freshman orientation. 

The next fallacy is the global defect of Clemans-Cope’s argument. It’s one thing to criticize a ranking methodology, or to make the case that Princeton should be closer to the University of Chicago on the FIRE taxonomy. But it is quite another thing to conclude that, in light of some disagreement about method, “Princeton’s free speech problem is imaginary.” The first criticism is plausible; the conclusion simply doesn’t follow.

The data contained in the FIRE survey are clear: Princeton has a free speech problem. Clemans-Cope either overlooked or chose to conceal a great chunk of that data, putting her readers at risk of being misled. Allow me to offer a sampling of the raw data left out of Clemans-Cope’s denialist rationalization.

Nearly 1 in 4 Princeton student respondents reported they are “very” uncomfortable disagreeing publicly with their professors on controversial issues; an additional 42 percent are ‘somewhat uncomfortable’ doing so. Forty percent are uncomfortable disagreeing with their professors in their written academic work. Twenty-nine percent are uncomfortable expressing their political viewpoints in class discussions. Forty-nine percent are uncomfortable doing so with their peers in common spaces. A quarter of Princeton student respondents think the university “definitely” should not allow a speaker who believes “abortion should be completely illegal” on campus; another 22 percent say the university “probably” should not allow such a speaker on campus. Fifty-three percent say the campus environment is either “very” or “somewhat” hostile to students who have political beliefs different from their own. And, as Clemans-Cope chose to highlight, only 1 in 4 students is willing to say that shouting down a speaker is never acceptable. 

Princeton’s free speech problem is imaginary? The data beg to differ. If Clemans-Cope wants to assuage those of us who care about our University’s truth-seeking mission, she’ll have to explain why FIRE’s data are either unreliable or unconcerning. That’s a tall order, of course. But attempting to deny obvious problems calls for rigorous arguments. We have yet to hear them.

Editor’s note: PFS does not routinely publish rebuttals of arguments made in other publications. In this case, the author requested we do so on the grounds that the Daily Princetonian would not publish his rebuttal without editing it in ways he found unacceptable.

February 13, 2023
By Abigail Anthony
The College Fix

Excerpt: Forty-one Princeton University undergraduates have signed a letter requesting the English Department condemn the “anti-Jewish bias and remarks” of a Palestinian writer and activist who recently spoke at the Ivy League campus. The department has declined.

Princeton hosted writer Mohammad El-Kurd for the event “On ‘Perfect Victims’ and the Politics of Appeal,” according to the university website. El-Kurd called “Zionist settlers” “sadistic barbaric neonazi pigs” on Twitter in June 2021: “I don’t care who this offends, they have completely internalized the ways of the nazis.”

February 13, 2023
By Matthew Wilson
Daily Princetonian

Last week, the Department of English hosted Mohammed El-Kurd, a left-wing writer and anti-Israel activist, for its annual Edward W. Said ’57 Memorial Lecture. El-Kurd, a 24-year-old columnist for The Nation, has a long history of making incendiary anti-Israel statements. His past comparisons of Jewish Israelis to “Nazis,” his praise for the Second Intifada, and his defense of a University of Southern California student who said she wanted to “kill” Zionists are just a few examples. El-Kurd’s past statements are obscene and depraved, and his searing anti-Israel views, as shown, obviously verge into blatant antisemitism.

February 10, 2023
By Tori Tinsley '24
Princeton Alumni Weekly

Excerpt: In response to an ongoing debate about academic freedom, some Princeton professors are including a new chapter in their syllabi: free-speech statements.

These statements have emerged to either reassure students that their views, no matter how disagreeable, are welcome in the classroom, or to set ground rules on what can and cannot be said in an academic setting.

February 9, 2023
By Abigail Rabieh
Daily Princetonian

Excerpt: What do conservatives want? David Walter ’11 seeks to answer this question in his recent Princeton Alumni Weekly article. Walter notes a trend among controversial campus leaders and ill-at-ease alumni, who, despite “the successes of their movement — including, most recently, the overturn of Roe v. Wade” feel “embattled as never before.”

Unfortunately for conservatives who like to complain, their values can fit within the liberal theory. If each generation of students chooses their values, we could choose values of free speech, of historical preservation, and of a values-focused curriculum. Yet even still, this will not be enough for the conservative movement, which can only win when the University itself, not just the student body, prioritizes these principles.

January 31, 2023
By Alexa Schwerha
Daily Caller

Excerpt: A Princeton University student argued in a Sunday night opinion article that the school’s Honor Code unfairly impacts racial minorities, citing parallels to the U.S. criminal justice system.

Santos told the Daily Caller News Foundation that the article did not fully “convey” her opinion. “I don’t feel that the piece was representative of what I had originally written when turning in the piece for edits, nor of the perspectives I had originally hoped to convey, as a result of several edits by members of the editing committee,” she said.

January 29, 2023
By Emily Santos
Daily Princetonian

Excerpt: American systems of legal administration enact violence against minority populations. Examining and re-considering these structures, such as the criminal justice system (CJS), is a crucial part of anti-racist action.

Princeton’s Honor Code, tasked with holding students accountable and honest in academic settings, mirrors the criminal justice system in its rules and effects. It is harmful to the entirety of the Princeton community: the fear it instills in students fosters an environment of academic hostility. But it is often most damaging for first-generation low-income (FLI) students — students who also often belong to racial minorities.

January 27, 2023
By Jon Edelman
Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Excerpt: Although the COVID-19 pandemic intensified racial divides in America, it did have one tempering effect. As students moved off campus and learned from home, the battles that had raged over building names statues, and memorials of figures associated with slavery, segregation, and eugenics cooled. Now, with campus life having returned to some version of normal, debates over landscape fairness are back.

January 26, 2023
By Keith E. Whittington
The Volokh Conspiracy, Reason Magazine

Excerpt: It is hard to know when to get excited about bills introduced in state legislatures. There is a lot of performative stuff with no chance of passage that nonetheless can get a lot of attention from activists and the press. When the House majority leader of a state legislature introduces a bill, however, I think you have to take that seriously. And the majority leader in North Dakota is now pushing a doozy of a bill.

Apparently the design of this bill is motivated specifically by the fact that post-tenure review systems adopted at many state universities do not result in enough fired professors.

January 25, 2023
By Keith E. Whittington
The Dispatch

Excerpt: Conservatives have long held conflicting impulses about intellectual freedom at American universities. On the one hand, they have often called for greater protections for free expression and intellectual diversity. Conservative victims of “cancel culture” can become media darlings on the right, and conservatives have been important to winning more robust protections for campus free speech. On the other hand, some conservatives hold reservations about the virtues of academic freedom and have demanded that universities cater to the particular sensitivities of conservative students.