A Professor Urges Students to Speak Their Minds Rather Than Self-censor

February 12, 2021

By Professor Robert P. George, PFS exclusive content

Below is a welcome message sent about two weeks ago by Professor Robert P. George to students in the large undergraduate course on Civil Liberties (Politics 316) that he is teaching this semester. It is preceded by an explanation that PFS asked Professor George to compose of how this message differs from those provided by professors to students in decades past.

First, the explanation:

For most of my three-and-a-half decades of teaching at Princeton, I and my academic colleagues felt no need to say anything about free speech (or self-censorship) in our courses. Even though I taught on the most controversial subjects (affirmative action, abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia, the death penalty, pornography, marriage and sexual morality, the role of religion in American public life, etc.) I could, and did, take it for granted that students would respect each other’s rights (and the rights of lecturers and preceptors) to free speech, and that they would exercise their own right to free speech by saying what they believed, making arguments for their positions, and even playing devil’s advocate to explore positions or arguments that they did not necessarily personally embrace.

It was only five or six years ago that I began to perceive an intolerance—even a spirit of authoritarianism. I also began to suspect that students who dissented from dominant views among their peers (and the faculty) were beginning to censor themselves in class discussions and in the broader conversation on campus. They were clearly afraid to express dissent.

Colleagues of mine, such as Professor Keith Whittington, Professor John Londregan, Professor Brandice Canes-Wrone, and Professor Sergiu Klainerman were picking up the same signals, and we began discussions that eventually led to a successful effort to have the faculty revise Princeton’s Rights, Rules, Responsibilities to incorporate the University of Chicago Free Speech principles.

This was and is important and valuable, but formal legal protections of free speech—as John Stuart Mill pointed out 150 years ago -- are not enough. We need a culture—a campus culture—that supports free speech and encourages students and others to speak their minds. My statement to my students is a small contribution to the effort to establish and maintain such a culture at Princeton. Other faculty members are including similar statements in their welcoming messages to students. We believe that what is at stake is the future of Princeton as a true university—that is, an institution dedicated to truth-seeking scholarship and non-indoctrinating teaching. There are forces in the broader culture working against those ideals, but neither surrender nor defeat is an option. We shall overcome.
Next, the welcome message:

Dear Enrollees in Politics 316: Civil Liberties –

Welcome to our course. The precepting team and I look forward to exploring with you the broad range of principles, issues, and arguments that are its substance.

Precepts are a bit longer than is typical in Princeton courses: 1 hour and 20 minutes. This will enable us to dig deeply into the complex and difficult issues we will be addressing. Precept participation is important. Please be an active participant in the discussions. The virtual format presents challenges, to be sure, but don't let it deter you from contributing to the conversations.
Please don't be reluctant to speak your mind in precept! Even if you hold an unpopular view, please be willing to share and defend it. Also, please be willing to be "devil's advocate" on behalf of views that you do not hold, or aren't sure whether you should hold. By robustly defending a controversial position to see whether, in the end, it can be successfully defended, or how far it can be defended, you will be doing all of us in the course a service.

On freedom of speech in our discussions, please see the statement on the syllabus, referencing the University's free speech policies set forth in Rights, Rules, Responsibilities. Princeton students and faculty enjoy the broadest possible free speech protections in all courses and other university activities, but surely free speech should be especially sacrosanct in a course on civil liberties! At the same time, we value civility--but that does not mean or require that anyone hold or decline to hold any particular view, or that one submit to anyone else's ideas about the language in which issues are to be framed, or the terms in which they are to be discussed, or the assumptions on which the discussion will proceed. What it does mean and require is that we all do business in the proper currency of intellectual discourse--a currency consisting of evidence, reasons, and arguments.

Some of the issues we will be discussing are not only controversial, but also sensitive and, to some people, personal. We nevertheless need to discuss them frankly. As Dean Jill Dolan says, we need to be "resilient and brave" in discussing matters that engage our emotions. One thing I can guarantee is this: Whatever your political, moral, religious, and other opinions happen to be, you will encounter in our readings and discussions challenges to them. You may even be offended or scandalized by what some authors or some participants in the course believe and say. Please bear in mind that, as Cornel West has stated, "the very point of a liberal arts education is to disturb and unsettle us." I have deliberately chosen readings representing radically opposed positions on the issues we explore. There is not an official position in the course about who is right and who is wrong about anything. All positions and points of view, no matter how radical or even unjust or immoral they may seem to people who oppose them, are on the table for discussion, scrutiny, and assessment on equal terms. There is no orthodoxy in the course; there are no dogmas. There is no censorship or policing of thought. I hope there will be no self-censorship.

My philosophy of teaching is straightforward and rather simple: My job is not to tell students what to think, or induce or encourage them to think as I do; it is, rather, to help students to think more deeply, more critically, and for themselves. What I ask of students is open-mindedness, tolerance of those whose opinions differ from yours, a willingness not only to challenge others but to be challenged in turn, and a genuine and deep desire to learn--and to learn by seriously engaging authors and fellow students whose ideas differ, even radically differ, from your own.

There is never a bad time to study and think hard about civil liberties; but this is an especially good time--indeed, an exciting time. We are in the midst of massive national disagreements about issues having to do with freedom of speech, the free exercise of religion, due process of law, the equal protection of the law, and more. In my opinion, though it need not be yours, some of these disagreements do not admit of obvious or straightforward answers, no matter how certain partisans on the competing sides are of the righteousness of their causes. In any case, I hope that our deliberations together will enable us all to be better, more constructive participants in the debates, no matter where we come down in them.

Best wishes,
Professor George