Shortly after a white student’s use of the n-word on social media provoked intense backlash, administrators asserted that the University permits certain uses of offensive slurs — including language that runs “contrary to Princeton’s commitment to stand for inclusivity and against racism.” Many students criticized the administrators’ statement, which the University community received on July 28, arguing that an institution committed to standing against racism should not permit hate speech. The message, sent by Vice President for Campus Life Rochelle Calhoun and cosigned by five other administrators, was that [the language did not] represent violations of University policy.”
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On July 20, a white Princeton student invoked the n-word in a public Facebook comment attempting to bait a dissenting Black commenter. News of this incident spread quickly among Princeton students, some of whom drafted a petition calling for a discrimination hearing. As of Aug. 4, 2020, over 1,500 individuals have signed this petition. In response, Vice President for Campus Life Rochelle Calhoun emailed all undergraduate students, announcing that while harmful, this use of a racial slur did not violate our University’s Freedom of Expression policy. What kind of message does it send if our concerns of racism and intolerance are met with invitations to “facilitate dialogue” and mental health resources?
About a month ago, the University removed Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs, with President Eisgruber stating in a letter to all students, “Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored, or excused racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against Black people.” While many have seen this as a great step forward in the University’s battle against racism, it seems that in the weeks since, the University and members of the campus community have only taken several steps back. Joshua Katz, a professor in the classics department, released his own statement, in which he referred to the Black Justice League — a group of student activists who fought from 2014–16 for the name change as well as other systemic changes — as a “small local terrorist organization.” Faculty aren’t the only ones to have spewed such hateful and anti-Black speech.
More notable, roughly 350 faculty members and staff signed an open letter, published on July 4, that set forth nearly 50 demands. One demand in particular generated a great deal of attention in the media: “Constitute 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.” The letter added that “what counts as racist” should be determined by the yet-to-be-formed faculty committee. In fact, multiple signatories are vehemently opposed to the demand beneath which they put their names.
Free speech is a bulwark of American political culture, and University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83’s recent op-ed piece states that it is crucial to Princeton’s culture as well. In reality, not all are equally protected when attempting to speak freely. This becomes apparent when examining Eisgruber’s commentary on the Black Justice League and professor Joshua Katz. The former was a group of nonviolent student activists that challenged the ways anti-Black racism manifested on Princeton’s campus and in society at large; the latter is a classics professor who recently penned a “Declaration of Independence” labeling the BJL as “evil” and a “small local terrorist organization.” Eisgruber states that the University’s broad free speech policies “protect Katz’s freedom to say what he did, just as they protected the Black Justice League’s.” Unfortunately, this is not true.
In a wide-ranging interview, Associate News & Features Editor Marie-Rose Sheinerman sat down with Professor of Jurisprudence Robert George and Professor Emeritus Cornel West GS’80 to discuss the two scholars’ recent op-ed in The Boston Globe, “On Honesty and Courage”. In the piece, the two long-time friends called on former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump — along with the American people — to uphold the aforementioned values during this difficult moment for our nation. In the interview, George and West discuss the renaming of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, formerly known as the Woodrow Wilson School; recent controversy surrounding an op-ed by Professor Joshua Katz; campus memory of the Black Justice League, a Black student activist group; and the importance of diverging from mainstream perspectives, no matter the social consequences.
On July 12, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 told The Daily Princetonian that he “personally and strongly” objected to classics professor Joshua Katz’s description of the Black Justice League (BJL) as a “local terrorist organization” in a Quillette column. At the time, University Spokesperson Ben Chang said the University would be “looking into the matter further.” In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published 15 days later, Katz, who learned that he was “not under investigation” despite his colleague colleagues’ condemnation, declared victory over what he deemed a manifestation of cancel culture. A number of students and alumni previously called for the University to take formal action following Katz’s comments on the BJL, a Black student activist group active on campus from 2014 until 2016.” Eisgruber, however, stressed in a recent ‘Prince’ op-ed that Katz “can be answered but not censored or sanctioned.”
Princeton’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas was once exemplary. In April 2015, with a clear majority vote of its faculty, it became the first university in the nation to follow the University of Chicago’s lead in adopting the Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression, the landmark commitment to the “discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.” In the tense time following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a student group called the Princeton Open Campus Coalition modeled reasoned debate among its multi-gender, multi-ethnic members This year has been different.
Commentary: For a few weeks, I felt energized as a Princeton student when the University decided to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of International and Public Affairs and the residential college. Yes, I understood it was not enough, it was only the beginning, but it finally felt like Princeton was listening to its Black community, who have had to endure the burden of Wilson’s racist legacy. [But] I was tired because a Princeton professor decided to write an article, which, in addition to calling Black student activists terrorists, undermined the faculty letter calling for anti-racist reforms on campus and threatened that an attempt to institute these policy proposals would lead to “a civil war on campus.”
America’s national reckoning with racism, carried out amidst a deadly and still unfolding pandemic, has uncovered long simmering tensions and persistent injustices throughout the country. Princeton has distinctive responsibilities as it contends with its own history, and seeks to improve itself, in this pivotal moment. [W]e are in an era when many people mistakenly treat free speech and inclusivity as competing values. Universities must nevertheless remain steadfastly devoted to both free speech and inclusivity. We need the benefit of multiple voices and perspectives, and we need real engagement among them. Our ability to uphold these two ideals depends upon the University’s policies but rests ultimately upon shared commitment from faculty, staff, and students. For example, Princeton has a strong policy protecting free speech. The University permits speech that is unpopular, provocative, controversial, wrong, or even deeply offensive.