Why Free Speech and Academic Freedom are Endangered at Princeton

Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of democracy and essential to learning. Yet surveys show that many university students not only do not understand the significance of free speech, they actually oppose it. Academic freedom is fundamental to the concept of a university.  Today, both freedoms are under attack at universities across the country, often by active, well-organized groups of faculty and students.  Princeton is no exception.

In 2020, Princeton was roiled by politically charged debates about the right to express individual views on issues including race, gender, and history.  More than 300 faculty and staff signed a letter making numerous demands to address alleged systemic racism at Princeton.  This followed a list of demands sent to the Princeton Administration by more than 250 students in the School of Public and International Affairs and others. In both cases some of the demands are in direct conflict with rights to free speech and academic freedom that are protected in Princeton’s own rules, based on the “Chicago Principles” that it and over eighty other universities have adopted in one form or another.

When a Princeton professor wrote an article in opposition to the faculty letter, he was personally attacked and vilified by other faculty and students. His letter was also initially condemned by the Princeton Administration, which said the matter would be investigated, despite the fact that the professor’s views were clearly protected by the Chicago principles.  Finally, after over a week, the Administration acknowledged that there would be no action taken against the professor.  Furthermore, when a small group of undergraduates signed a letter in opposition to the above-mentioned list of demands by students, some of that small group were attacked on social media by other students as being “racist” and “Nazis.”

Then the Daily Princetonian ran a series of long articles about this Princeton professor, following a seven month massive investigation into his personal life. Never in its history has the newspaper devoted so many resources or so much front page coverage to any professor.  It is clear that the impetus for the effort was to punish the professor for stating his views. This investigation and the barrage of articles sent a clear message to professors and students that it is very risky to openly disagree with the orthodoxy the newspaper and many faculty espouse. And unbelievably, the Princetonian is on the record as opposing the use of Princeton's free speech rules.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which assesses restrictions on free speech and other civil liberties, has given Princeton a negative “red light” rating, designating it as a school that “both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

Given this atmosphere on the Princeton campus, it is no wonder that faculty and students often say they feel isolated and intimidated from expressing their views, including in classroom discussions, for fear of being personally attacked and ostracized.  Many students even believe their grades will be affected if they convey their true views in class, and that attacks on social media can affect their future careers.

PFS hopes to help change these ominous trends. PFS has rallied and will rally support for Princeton students and faculty who are being attacked or harassed for expressing their views. It is also a vehicle to give all Princetonians and groups of Princetonians who may wish to contact the university about specific developments on campus that they believe impede free speech, free expression, or academic freedom.