No Room for Free Speech: The Anti-Intellectualism of Princeton’s Protesters

Tiger statues at Nassau Hall on the Princeton campus. (Wikimedia)

Last month, a group of student protesters led by an organization called the Black Justice League occupied Princeton University president Christopher Eisgruber’s office for 32 hours and refused to leave until he had signed a watered-down version of their demands. These demands included instituting a “safe space” on campus, renaming the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Wilson residential college because of President Wilson’s racist beliefs, mandating “cultural competency” training for faculty, instituting a distribution requirement that would force students to take a course on “marginalized peoples,” and providing de facto racially segregated “affinity housing” (disguised as housing for students interested in black culture).

There has been lots of controversy on campus about whether the protesters can be credited with promoting dialogue or stifling it. While the group stated publicly that it supports free speech, some members’ words and actions contradict this claim. Protesters purport to seek diversity, but what they really want is conformity.

For example, some protesters publicly shame and stigmatize those who question their demands and methods, thus promoting a campus culture of intimidation. Many non-black students who opposed the protest refrained from voicing their criticism out of fear of being labeled as racists and subjected to ad hominem attacks. Some students resorted to an anonymous forum called Yik-Yak to post statements like, “It’s alarming how few people publicly oppose BJL [protesters] even though I’ve gotten the impression that most people don’t support them,” to which another person replied, “If you publicly speak out against BJL people fear being labeled as a racist.”

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Many students have witnessed that detrimental labeling firsthand. After attending the protest, I (Devon) was so shocked by what I saw that I felt compelled to speak out against their demands and tactics. In an op-ed in Princeton’s student newspaper, titled “We can do better,” I point out the hypocrisy of anti-racism protesters’ making race-based judgments: “As a fundamental principle of equality, the weight of a person’s opinions should not be a function of their skin color but rather the quality of their arguments.” This article alone caused a group of protesters to scream profanities at me while accusing me of being racist and request that I not be allowed to attend an open forum to voice my opinion. A Black Justice League leader reinforced this fear when she responded to another student’s article by writing that because of his “white privilege” his opinion was “moot” and “of miniscule value.” By focusing on the race of an opponent or portraying him or her as racist, protesters seek to shut down debate rather than engage them with legitimate points of disagreement.

Minority students are also subjected to this racially divisive and stigmatizing rhetoric. For instance, after posting a Facebook status questioning protesters’ demands, a dissenting black sophomore was told by a protest leader to suppress his opinion and instead “stand in solidarity” and support “your people.” He was told that white people did not care about him and that his black peers would pray for him — as if his free thought were a mortal sin. It is appalling that anyone in our nation, let alone a college student who cherishes academic debate, is treated like a traitor or “white sympathizer” for simply expressing thoughts contrary to those of other students of his race. Similarly, Hispanic and black students who oppose the protesters have been called “tokens” of their white peers. The message is clear: Conformity to the protesters’ worldview is required; there is no room for diversity of thought.

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In response to this toxic campus culture, we helped found the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC) to protect diversity of thought and promote the right of all students to advance their academic and personal convictions in a manner free from intimidation. We seek to counteract the politically correct culture on college campuses that victimizes both liberal and conservative students by pressuring them to hold certain beliefs depending on their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, or other demographic traits.

#share#A key element of the protesters’ strategy is to “reeducate” minority students who do not think of themselves as victims. A black POCC member was told at a public debate that her well-reasoned opposition to the protesters’ tactics and demands was simply “a result of internalized oppression.” This is an underhanded attempt to avoid meaningful engagement with her ideas by attempting to create a victim complex within a student who does not believe that she has been discriminated against or persecuted at Princeton on account of her race.

Students on Princeton’s campus, and any campus for that matter, should have the intellectual freedom to espouse whatever idea they choose, especially if it is controversial or uncharacteristic, for it is controversial ideas that tend to generate the most robust and productive debate. As POCC wrote in our letter to President Eisgruber, “there should be no space at a university in which any member of the community, student or faculty, is ‘safe’ from having his or her most cherished and even identity-forming values challenged.”

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Yet protesters request insulation from controversial and potentially offensive conversations by demanding affinity housing and a “safe space” where they can seek shelter from the “danger” posed by ideas. This insularity contradicts the core mission of the university. A Black Justice League leader’s opinion piece argued:

If your freedom of thought means that I, a Black student, do not have the luxury of feeling safe on a campus that I have worked my entire life to get to, it should have no place in universities or any other beloved institution.

She appears to be arguing that allegedly offensive thoughts somehow threaten the physical safety of minorities. Never mind that she ignores the difference between feeling threatened and being threatened. Never mind that she cannot cite a single instance of actual racial violence at Princeton, or even a credible threat thereof. While we certainly respect the author’s right to voice her opinion, her call to purge Princeton of “freedom of thought” is antithetical to the mission of the university and anathematic to its search for truth and wisdom.

It’s clear that a call for the subjugation of, or genuine violence towards, minorities at Princeton or any other mainstream American university would be met with forceful and near-unanimous condemnation. Those who believe otherwise and claim that offensive or un-p.c. views at Princeton actually jeopardize students’ safety are employing hyperbole in an attempt to demonize dissent.

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In shying away from sharing opinions on “touchy subjects” such as this that may offend other students, we do a disservice to students who came to Princeton to improve their intellects and be exposed to diverse perspectives — which includes having their ideas scrutinized.

We also worked our entire lives to get into Princeton, and we, unlike some of our peers, came here to think and to have our ideas challenged, not to be coddled and protected from those who blaspheme against the postmodern orthodoxies of the sort protesters are seeking to enforce at Princeton and across the nation.

#related#The Black Justice League has indeed done a service to Princeton by raising the issue of President Wilson’s racism and inspiring a passionate philosophical debate about veneration. As a precursor to student debates on issues like this, however, the right to exercise freedom of thought and expression must first be protected for all students. No group should dictate what student traits (especially demographic ones) are prerequisites for debate participation; instead, all opinions should be invited, considered, and challenged in a civil manner.

When all students, regardless of race or ideology, feel welcome to participate in the campus conversation, arguments will inevitably be advanced that make most people uncomfortable. Good. Offense and discomfort are signs that one’s preconceived notions are being challenged. That is what is supposed to happen in a university worthy of the name.

— Devon Nicole Naftzger and Josh Zuckerman are seniors at Princeton University.


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