Summary: This article is a detailed rebuttal of a January 4 article in the National Review, which PFS had previously posted, in which Princeton sophomore Adam Hoffman, a member of Princeton's Whig-Cliosophic Society, writes that the Society had "blocked" invitations to speak for George Will and U.S. Federal Court of Appeals Judge Neomi Rao because they were too controversial. Mr. Seabrooks, a former Vice President of the Society, says that Mr. Hoffman's characterizations of both the process followed and the result are highly misleading and points to a number of conservative speakers the Society has hosted.
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Excerpt: Has the college-speaker-disinvitation craze ended? Some would have you believe so. The Niskanen Center proclaimed that “the campus free speech crisis” ended in 2018. University disinvitations peaked in 2016 and have slowly declined since. However, my experience at Princeton University has taught me that the attack on free speech is hardly over. Conservative voices are still being stifled on campus, only now through more-cunning methods. As president of the right-leaning party of Princeton University’s American Whig-Cliosophic Society, the oldest collegiate literary, political, and debate society in the nation, I am responsible for bringing conservative speakers and voices to the heart of Princeton’s political scene. In 2020, I tried to do my job, only to be shut down by an intolerant Left. [The] Speakers Council flagged a number of my speakers as controversial, [including] Washington Post columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner (and Princeton alumnus) George Will and Neomi Rao, a former law professor and currently a circuit judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Predictably, none of the left-leaning party’s choices, including extreme progressives such as bell hooks and provocateurs such as Jamelle Bouie, were deemed controversial. Unfortunately, the speakers’ fates seemed sealed before we even began consideration.
January 1, 2021
In a nation where, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), “The vast majority of students at America’s top colleges and universities surrender their free speech rights the moment they step onto campus,” Princeton has in the past championed free speech more than most. In 2015 it became one of the first universities to adopt as a university regulation (through a faculty vote) the “Chicago Principles,” guaranteeing “all members of the university the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” In the summer of 2018 President Eisgruber sent Professor Keith Whittington’s Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech as the annual “Pre-read” to every member of the entering first-year class and all current Princeton students and faculty. This summer he wrote a pro-free speech op-ed for the Daily Princetonian.
But the University Administration has seemed to some to be slower to defend speech by conservative and centrist students that offends progressives than when it’s the other way around. And FIRE, which rates more than 450 higher education institutions on protecting free speech and other civil liberties, currently gives Princeton “the speech code rating red” because it “both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
More important, the challenges by activist faculty and student groups at Princeton to traditional free speech and academic freedom values have become potent and constant. For example:
FIRE Vice President Samantha Harris, a 1999 Princeton graduate, posted on July 8, 2020 on FIRE’s website an article headlined “Princeton faculty petition threatens free speech, academic freedom.” She wrote:
“At my alma mater, Princeton University, [more than 350] faculty, staff, and graduate students have signed a petition demanding the university ‘take immediate concrete and material steps to openly and publicly acknowledge the way that anti-Black racism, and racism of any stripe, continue to thrive on its campus. [Princeton has about 1,200 full-time and part-time faculty members.]
“The petition [published on July 4] includes a long list of ‘demands,’ several of which stand in direct opposition to Princeton students’ and faculty members’ rights to free speech, academic freedom, and freedom of conscience. (Notably, one of them — a demand that faculty of color receive extra pay and sabbatical time compared to white faculty — is simply illegal.) . . .
“The most chillingly illiberal demand in the petition asks Princeton to ‘[c]onstitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, . . . Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.’ ”
Interestingly, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic found by interviewing signers that many of them “are vehemently opposed to the demand beneath which they put their names.”
Freedom of speech on campus is often more at risk from peer pressure to conform to the dominant viewpoints than from official sanction. Surveys show that fear of expressing reasoned opinions that others might find offensive is pervasive in academia these days. It is also constricts the diversity of viewpoints that is critical to the educational process. In a 2019 national survey by Heterodox Academy (a group advocating intellectual freedom and diversity), for example, more than half of students said they were sometimes reluctant to express their opinions on politics, race, religion, and/or sexuality in class discussions. And “Republican students were more reluctant than students who identified with other political groups to give their views on politics, race, sexuality, and gender.” Other student surveys have found similar data. And there is no reason to suppose that education at Princeton is less degraded by lack of viewpoint diversity than at other campuses.
In addition to the petition discussed by Ms. Harris, on June 22 a group of more than 240 students in Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, self-described as “the Class of 2020 with our allies in the classes of 2021 and 2022,” submitted a list of demands to the Administration including “anti-racist training at least once per semester for all faculty (including tenured professors), staff, preceptors, and administrators.”
In response to the faculty petition, Professor Joshua Katz, of the Classics Department, published on the website Quillette, on July 8, 2020, an article headlined “A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor.” He sharply criticized the faculty petition, which begins: “Anti-blackness is foundational to America,” and objected to many of the demands, including the above-mentioned committee on “racist behaviors." Dr. Katz said that “would be a star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, punishment, suspension, even dismissal.” He also assailed demands for preferences and special compensation and perks to faculty “of color” -- and only to them -- for their “invisible work, and for “a core distribution requirement focused on the history and legacy of racism in the country and on the campus.” That, he suggested, would “teach the 1619 Project as dogma.”
Dr. Katz was then deluged with personal attacks and demands for discipline by faculty members including four colleagues who used the Princeton Classics website to denounce his language as “abhorrent” and suggested that he had placed “Black colleagues, students, and alums at serious risk.” These attacks focused on his description of the Black Justice League, which had not been heard from since 2016, as “a small local terrorist” group “that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with the group’s demands.”
In a subsequent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Dr. Katz said that BJL members had in years past “targeted and smeared fellow undergraduates for disagreeing with them." He criticized a social media post by a BJL alumni leader "who—emboldened by recent events and egged on by over 200 supporters who were baying for blood—presided over what was effectively a Struggle Session against one of his former classmates. It was one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed, and I do not say this lightly.” Dr. Katz added that “many people who privately say they agree with me are too frightened to state their opinions publicly."
Indeed, BJL leaders have repeatedly demeaned black students with racially charged accusations such as “performing white supremacy” for declining to endorse BJL’s aims and methods. BJL itself recently smeared a Princeton politics lecturer as a racist because he opposes racial preferences for nonwhites.
President Eisgruber joined in the verbal attacks on Dr. Katz on July 12, saying that “I object personally and strongly to his false description of a Princeton student group as a ‘local terrorist organization’ ” and that Dr. Katz “has unfairly disparaged members of the Black Justice League” and “failed” in his “obligation to exercise [his free speech] right responsibly.” University Spokesperson Ben Chang added that the Administration “will be looking into the matter further.”
This threat of a possible investigation was left standing for eight days, and received a good deal of publicity, before President Eisgruber finally did what the Chicago Principles seemingly required from the start, by announcing on July 20 that there would be no further action against Dr. Katz for exercising his right of free speech.
Contemporaneously, in a matter that did not receive media attention, there were social media attacks on a rising sophomore by fellow Princeton students who labeled him a “racist,” a “Nazi,” and a “fascist” who should suffer “social ostracism.” He was attacked for signing (as did more than 20 others) a June 30 letter to President Eisgruber from the “Princeton Open Campus Coalition” (POCC) criticizing some of the demands by the group of more than 240 students mentioned above.
President Eisgruber responded to a July 14 letter from 47 alumni (organized by me) urging him to speak out against (not to discipline) the anonymous students who had harassed the rising sophomore by stating that these attacks were protected by Princeton’s Chicago Principles regulation. This despite the fact that the Chicago Principles contain an exception for “harassment” and an explicit Princeton rule prohibiting “abusive and harassing behavior.” In addition, a low-level company employee cancelled an interview for an internship with the student, citing the POCC letter. President Eisgruber stated that he would not address that issue. The company, after receiving a draft of the alumni letter protesting its action, said the interview cancellation had been an unauthorized mistake.
The University Administration’s responses to such events are seen by some as reflecting the enormous pressure from some student and faculty groups to apply a de facto ideological double standard on free speech matters. It is my hope that Princetonians for Free Speech will shine a light on controversies of this kind and bring the views of alumni, students, and faculty who support free speech and oppose double standards to the attention of all concerned.
Excerpt: In 2020, it is bold for me to contend that the majority of White Americans are not racist and that the majority of Black Americans are not victims of systemic or overt racism. As we craft solutions to heal the scars from slavery and segregationist policies, much of the effort depends upon institutions to reconstruct their policies and provide support systems for underprivileged minorities. However, I question the substance of many of the oft-offered solutions. I have always wondered how we recognize individual Black Americans, both in the past and present, who have made significant contributions to their respective fields. George Washington Carver was an American agricultural scientist who promoted alternative crops to cotton and methods to prevent soil depletion, Frederick Douglass escaped slavery and became one of the most affluent Black abolitionist and statesman, Dr. Mae Jemison served in the Peace Corps and was the first Black female astronaut, and beloved Princeton professor Toni Morrison was a prolific novelist and essayist. In spite of the odds, they succeeded. But how was that so? If society is absolutely systematically against Black Americans, how did they succeed? I believe the problem is the broken culture of many Black Americans, which has been perpetuated by several factors.
Excerpt: In 2015, Princeton University became the second higher-education institution to sign the University of Chicago Statement supporting campus free speech. Yet, five years later, Princeton professor Keith E. Whittington wrote that the university stood “on the front lines” of the battle over speech. Those battle lines were drawn this summer by students and faculty demanding the adoption of “anti-racist” policies, which some on campus say run counter to free speech and open inquiry. Princeton ranked just 29th in the 2020 College Free Speech Rankings, an ambitious survey of nearly 20,000 students at 55 schools conducted by RealClearEducation, research firm College Pulse, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). When Princeton’s conservative students ranked the school, it dropped to 42nd. It ranked 47th on ideological diversity and earned a “red” designation from FIRE, indicating a restrictive speech code. The survey showed that many Princeton students censor themselves in classrooms and social settings. Rebekah Adams, a senior and president of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC), a student group committed to defending free speech and civil dialogue, told RealClearEducation that many students fear speaking freely will bring academic repercussions such as lower grades and “social ostracization.”
Excerpt: The woke totalitarian mob has come for Professor Robert George at Princeton. The offense he committed was in the form of a poll question posed [by George] via Twitter (below):
“By listing or stating their preferred pronouns, people are making sure that others known their:
Surely this cannot stand. What cannot stand? The question cannot stand. Two Daily Princetonian reporters provide a sympathetic account — sympathetic to the woke mob — of the ensuing controversy. [Lengthy quotation of the article is linked above and on this website.] The article goes on at excruciating length to explore the uproar. It gives short shrift to the absurdity of the uproar and the totalitarian gist of the proceedings. The point is that Professor George must be made to bow down before the strange new gods of the woke mob. He must profess his adherence to Big Nonbinary Sibling.
Excerpt: Among the many disturbing events of 2020 has been the rising threat to academic freedom at colleges and universities, both in the United States and abroad. This threat has been particularly marked at elite institutions. Just this summer, our school, Princeton University, succumbed to a pressure campaign that called on the administration to scrub Woodrow Wilson's name from campus. This campaign also demanded mandatory "anti-racist" training and the introduction of ideology-driven curricular changes. Not to be outdone, faculty members quickly released their own demands, which included weighing professors' academic contributions differently on account of their race and the institution of a faculty board to "investigat[e] racist...research and publication." When a prominent professor wrote in dissent from the letter's most chilling demands, he was denounced by his department and condemned by an administration that said it would be "looking into the matter further." These troublesome trends are not a Princetonian anomaly. In response to the threats to academic freedom at Princeton this summer, we revived a campus group called the Princeton Open Campus Coalition. The "woke" mobs seem strong, but they do not speak for everyone. If university administrators only ever feel their pressure and hear their demands, they may succumb to an illusion of unanimity.
Excerpt: Prominent conservative professor Robert P. George received backlash on social media last week after posting a poll that questioned pronoun usage, which multiple students who spoke to The Daily Princetonian found transphobic and invalidating of nonbinary and gender-nonconforming experiences. George, Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, received further criticism for blocking the Twitter accounts of current and former students who condemned the poll. Some considered George’s actions hypocritical, given his vocal advocacy for free speech and the open exchange of ideas. George pushed back on both of these sentiments, arguing that the views many students deemed bigoted ought to be respected and refuting the accusation that he blocked users who criticized his viewpoint. With this latest dispute, the University community continues to grapple with reconciling free speech and inclusivity, particularly when those missions seem at odds. In 2016, George tweeted, “There are few superstitious beliefs as absurd as the idea that a woman can be trapped in a man’s body & [vice-versa].” A year later, he wrote, “to regard a man as a woman is to misunderstand biology.”
Excerpt: The ubiquity of race obsession on campuses in the age of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd showed itself at Princeton University, too, so much so that in September its President, Christopher L. Eisgruber, published a self-flagellating open letter in which he bemoaned the fact that “[r]acism and the damage it does to people of color persist at Princeton” and that “racist assumptions” are “embedded in structures of the University itself.” At least one federal agency took Eisgruber at his word and Princeton subsequently received a letter from the Department of Education (DOE) questioning if the university was, in light of this self-professed racism, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That investigation by the DOE may be of concern for Princeton officials, but the frenzy over racism from inside the campus community is proving to be a thornier problem as the campus has reacted vocally to some recent instances of alleged racism by faculty and students—even questioning whether or not academic freedom should be restricted to make sure no one’s feelings are hurt by racist expression.
These are heroes of academic freedom and integrity. Bursting with pride in the brave and brilliant students of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition! [The Heterodox Academy, HxA, which calls itself “the preeminent voice for open inquiry and viewpoint diversity,” announced on December 17: “We are thrilled to announce the 2020 Open Inquiry Awards winners: @John McWhorter, Leadership; @Amy Lai, Exceptional Scholarship; @JustinTosi & @BrandonWarmke, Exceptional Scholarship; Princeton Open Campus Coalition, Outstanding Student Group; and @matthewgburgess, Teaching.” The Princeton Open Campus Coalition, POCC, says its mission is “Protecting diversity of thought and the right of all students to advance their academic and personal convictions in a manner free from intimidation.”]