Whig-Clio and the Stealth Suppression of Free Speech

By Edward Yingling, ’70, and Stuart Taylor, Jr, ’70, co-founders of Princetonians for Free Speech

“I believe there are more instances of abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”  James Madison in a 1788 speech.

While the shouting down and the disinviting of speakers at universities receive the press coverage, what is not covered are the many speakers that are just never invited in the first place.  This was a point made by a sophomore at Princeton, Adam Hoffman, in a recent article in National Review.  As an example of how conservative speakers are not being invited, Hoffman alleged that a council of the Princeton Whig-Cliosophic Society, commonly called Whig-Clio, rejected his recommendation that George Will be invited to speak at a Whig-Clio event.  According to Hoffman, the reason given for the rejection was that Will was “too controversial” based on some of his “writings on marginal groups.”  Also rejected, Mr. Hoffman said, was Neomi Rao, a conservative Trump appointee who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Hoffman’s account of what happened was disputed in a lengthy article in the Daily Princetonian by Terrell Seabrooks, former Vice President of the Whig-Clio Governing Council. That article was in turn refuted in another article by Mr. Hoffman in the Princeton Tory.  Because the issue of restraints on inviting speakers to Princeton is central to the free speech mission of Princetonians for Free Speech (PFS), and in the interest of fairness, all three articles have been posted on the PFS website, princetoniansforfreespeech.com

We do not know which version of the discussions at Whig-Clio is correct, nor does it matter for the purposes of this article, which is to show how free speech is suppressed on a daily basis -- in the words of James Madison, “by gradual and silent encroachments” -- on campuses.  We will take at face value the explanation in Mr. Seabrooks’ article (disputed by Mr. Hoffman) as to why George Will’s invitation to speak was “placed on hold.”  In his article, Mr. Seabrooks states: “…[T]he basis of the request for a more detailed plan was not due to intolerance, but rather because of concerns that protests might disrupt the event, as was the case when Will spoke at Princeton’s 2019 baccalaureate ceremony….  Moreover, as part of the discussion around a possible invitation to Will, members offered suggestions that included hosting a private dinner or hosting a panel.”

In other words, this Whig-Clio council was worried about protests and was looking for ways to have Will speak in private or on a panel, presumably where others with views contrary to Will would also speak.  The council clearly did not want to sponsor a forum in which Will would speak in public, by himself.  We see no other way to view this.  It strikes us that what happened at Whig-Clio is a prime example of how pervasive and dangerous the current campus atmosphere is to free speech – especially since Whig-Clio, as discussed further below, may well have the most distinguished history of any debating society on any campus in the country.

We do not use what happened with respect to the Will invitation to single out the students of Whig-Clio, for they are college students subject to the same pressures as other college students today when it comes to free speech.  And there was a real possibility of protests.  It is commendable that these students are members of Whig-Clio, as it shows that they are at least interested in the concept of free debate.

So why did the members of Whig-Clio place on hold an invitation to George Will?  There are a number of reasons students give today for not inviting or hearing speakers.  Were the Whig-Clio members, themselves, afraid of what his comments might “trigger” in them?  Were they afraid of what his comments might “trigger” in those who might choose to attend?  Did they think Will’s views are so outrageous that they don’t deserve to be heard?  Were they afraid of what others on campus might say to them, or more likely, say about them on social media for inviting him?  Were they afraid that protests would disrupt the speech?  Let us assume it was only the last concern, as Mr. Seabrooks stated.  But it really does not matter which is the reason: the opponents of free speech have succeeded in suppressing a possible public speech by a distinguished conservative and have done so without having to raise a finger. 

To understand just how amazing -- and sad -- this situation is, it is important to say more about both Whig-Clio and George Will.

Whig-Clio proudly, and correctly, calls itself the “oldest college literary and debating club in the United States.”  It is known for its debates and for its speakers.  As it says on its website, its “debates trained generations to consider the great public issues of the day.”  Whig-Clio’s predecessor groups at Princeton were founded in 1715.  Whig and Clio, which later merged, were founded in 1769 and 1770, respectively.   

According to Whig-Clio’s website, from the 1930’s on, Whig-Clio’s most public role was to bring important national figures to speak on campus.  In a sentence that deserves to be emphasized with respect to the proposed Will invitation, the website says: “Sometimes controversial, the speakers linked the undergraduates in direct and personal manner to the wider world beyond Princeton.”   

The list of members of Whig-Clio is simply an amazing trip through the history of the United States, although certainly some have recently attracted controversy.  A brief sampling includes:  James Madison, fourth President of the United States and the author of the Bill of Rights;  Aaron Burr, known most today for killing Alexander Hamilton in a dual, but also the third Vice President of the United States; William Bradford, the second Attorney General of the United States and the first lawyer to argue a case before the Supreme Court; George Dallas, the eleventh Vice President of the United States; Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth President of the United States; John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State; F. Scott Fitzgerald, famous author; Adlai Stevenson, twice the Democratic nominee for President; Paul Sarbanes, a liberal icon of the United States Senate; Ralph Nader, the renowned consumer advocate; Both Tarkington, famous author; and Samuel Alito, Supreme Court Justice.  These members, and many more, constitute a proud history and a demonstration of the importance of debate in the intellectual growth of students that should resonate with the leaders of Whig-Clio.

On campus, Whig-Clio is primarily known as a debating society.  The word debate is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “a formal argument ... in which opposing arguments are put forward.”   Indeed, debate is fundamental to the reason free speech is enshrined in the First Amendment.  Free speech is necessary to have real debate, and real debate is necessary to arrive at the truth and to continually test what is considered to be the truth.  But there can be no debate if one side of the argument is shut down.

And who is this person, George Will, who the decision-makers at Whig-Clio apparently determined should not speak in an open forum or at least not without appearing with someone with opposing views?  He is one of the most distinguished Princetonians of his generation.  He served on the Princeton Board of Trustees. He is someone the Wall Street Journal once called “perhaps the most powerful journalist in America.” He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.  He may well have been the most respected columnist in America and was certainly the most respected conservative columnist, still known for his thoughtful and erudite analysis. He was a regular commentator on TV – for example, appearing on the ABC Sunday news program almost every Sunday for years.  He even was a commentator on MSNBC.  And for years he wrote a column for that well-known right-wing publication, … the Washington Post.   

Let us be clear that our concern with Whig-Clio’s action has nothing to do with left versus right.  We would make the same arguments if Whig-Clio had tabled a Bernie Sanders invitation for the same reasons.

Princetonians should think deeply about what this example means for Princeton; what it means about what students are learning and feeling at Princeton, and the pressures they are under.  Let us hope the great history of Whig-Clio will continue.  But if leaders of this great, historic debating society fear the consequences of giving an open forum to one of the most distinguished political and social commentators of our time, then something has gone terribly wrong.