Two recent developments show free speech is in serious trouble at Princeton. This week, the “2021 College Free Speech Ranking,” published by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), placed Princeton dead last in the Ivy League on free speech and a dismal 134 out of 159 colleges and universities ranked. The FIRE press release and link to the ranking can be accessed here. This follows the controversial Princeton orientation for the class of 2025, which contained an official presentation that denigrated free speech.

The FIRE ranking was based on surveys of students, plus an analysis of schools’ written policies on speech on which Princeton received a negative “red light” rating. The survey results show that the great majority of the schools rated have serious problems on free speech, and yet Princeton is near the bottom of this barrel of rotting apples. For example, in the survey, only 34 percent of the students from all schools thought it was never acceptable to shout down a speaker on campus. So, 66 percent thought it at least sometimes right to shout down speakers. Over 80 percent of the students said they self-censor in the classroom, on campus, and online. The answers to other questions show most students at almost all schools have a total lack of understanding of what free speech means.

The specific results for Princeton show students often feel reluctant to state their views. One member of the class of 2022 is quoted as saying: “Cancel culture is very strong at Princeton so uploading unpopular opinions to social media is very dangerous.” For a PFS article on the FIRE ranking for Princeton, click here.

Another sign of trouble at Princeton is that the editors of the student newspaper, The Daily Princeton, incredibly do not believe in free speech either. In one editorial a year ago, they referred to Princeton’s rules, which implement the Chicago Principles adopted by over 80 colleges, as Princeton’s “hardline free speech policy” and demanded punishment of a professor for a statement the university had said was protected free speech. 

And the trend is not good either; last year Princeton ranked fourth in the Ivy League. As free speech, and its close relative, academic freedom, die on campus, Princeton will soon no longer deserve to use the name “university.” Free speech and thought, scholarship, and innovative research will be no longer tolerated if they do not meet the prescribed orthodoxy.

Furthermore, the student body will change and for the worse. FIRE is a very reputable, non-partisan organization. FIRE’s rankings will increasingly be used by students in choosing where to go to college. Those who value free speech and freedom of thought will self-select against Princeton. How many parents will decide that Princeton, with its cancel culture spot-lighted by its awful ranking, is a dangerous place for their children to go?

What will happen when there is a confrontation on campus, as seems almost inevitable?  Unbelievably, in the FIRE survey, 17 percent of the Princeton students said it might be acceptable to use violence to stop a speaker. While most of that 17 percent indicated it would “rarely” be acceptable, this clearly is a large enough number to be scary.

So, what has Princeton done to educate its students about free speech recently? Apparently nothing. In fact, Princeton presented new students with an orientation this year in which free speech was portrayed in a negative light. In the orientation, a current professor was also vilified for something he had written, even though the university had explicitly stated that his statement was protected by its rules on free speech; from this, the new students could only conclude that the Princeton leadership does not take its own rules seriously. And the orientation showcased a professor who told the students that free speech is “masculinized bravado” and went on to advocate for a free speech “that is flexed to one specific aim, and that aim is the promotion of social justice, and anti-racist social justice at that.”  This same professor said Princeton professors should provide students “with the tools to tear down this place and make it a better one.” In other words, professors should indoctrinate students. This was all in the official orientation materials. See a PFS op-ed on this orientation. 

In the past, President Eisgruber has spoken eloquently on free speech and in 2018 even recommended Princeton Professor Keith Whittington’s excellent book, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, as reading to the incoming students. This year, when a discussion of free speech was needed more than ever, there was not even a mention in the orientation of Princeton’s free speech rules or the Chicago Principles. The only discussion of free speech was against it.

How could Princeton, the college of James Madison, the architect of the First Amendment, reach this point? Those in charge of Princeton -- its administration and its board of trustees -- need to realize just how serious the lack of understanding of, and support for, free speech is. There needs to be a sense of urgency. 

As has happened at other universities, at any time there could be an event that leads to a blow-up of protests and demands at Princeton. Students and faculty need to understand in advance what the rules on free speech are and that they will be enforced. And there needs to be an affirmative program to educate students on why free speech is important -- why, for example, Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King, Jr, and John Lewis all eloquently stated the importance of free speech to the civil rights movement. Some on campus will oppose such a program; but they also oppose Princeton’s own rules on free speech and have demonstrated they will attack them. It is time for the university to say what it stands for and why -- before it is too late.