The Editors’ Guide to Free Speech on Campus

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In late July, the University of New Hampshire issued a “Bias-Free Language Guide” designed to help students “invite inclusive excellence” on campus. To many commenters, the Guide represented the apex of political correctness and asinine policymaking. Why?

  • The word ‘American’ is ‘problematic’ because it excludes residents of other North and South American nations. Instead, students should use the term ‘U.S. citizen.’
  • But wait, ‘senior citizen’ should not be used (likely because it excludes non-citizens).
  • ‘Healthy’ and ‘handicapped’ are also no-no’s, as are ‘rich’ and ‘poor.’
  • Gendered terms like ‘mothering’ and ‘fathering’ should be avoided, as should ‘mailman’ and ‘manpower.’
  • Well, can we at least say ‘Caucasian?’ Nope. You should say ‘European-American individuals.’ What about ‘black?’ Sure, no problem.

The University of New Hampshire ultimately retracted the guide. Alas, it is indicative of a terribly alarming trend on college campuses nationwide. And we’re not referring to bad writing. Rather, having realized the minor inconvenience known as the First Amendment prevents public college administrators and professors from punishing those who espouse heterodox opinions (i.e. conservatives and libertarians), the modern university now seeks to employ social pressure as a means of coercing self-censorship. There are three common means of doing so:

1. The Microaggression

The most potent weapon in the arsenal of the political-correctness officer is the so-called “microaggression,” defined by a University of California Los Angeles guide for faculty members as “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” Examples of microaggressions according to UCLA are:

  • “America is a melting pot.”
  • “Men and women have equal opportunities for achievement.”
  • “Gender plays no part in who [sic] we hire.”
  • “Affirmative action is racist.”
  • “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

Note the ramifications of this last “microagression.” Suggesting that companies should ignore sex, skin color, etc. in favor of actual qualifications is, incredulously, “derogatory” to so-called “marginalized groups.” As UCLA professor Eugene Volokh observes, these microagressions “can lead to a ‘hostile learning environment,’ which UC — and the federal government — views as legally actionable. This is stuff you could get disciplined or fired for.”

Basically, UCLA has defined a non-racist, non-sexist, and non-anything-ist opinion as “hostile,” and in doing so has ignored Justice Robert Jackson’s famous words in West Virginia v. Barnette: “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics […]or other matters of opinion.” But UCLA has done just that. While it is incredibly unlikely that any punishment for “microagressing” would survive judicial scrutiny, UCLA has used its guide to intimidate members of its community, particularly non-tenured professors, into self-censorship.

The Tory’s Advice: We’ll have to quote Professor Volokh on this one—“I’m happy to say that I’m just going to keep on microagressing.” And you should be too.

2. Identity Politics and Race-Baiting

In April, Bahar Mustafa, a welfare and diversity officer at Britain’s Goldsmiths University, tweeted “#killallwhitemen.” When confronted about her belligerency, Ms. Mustafa replied, “I, as an ethnic minority woman, cannot be racist or sexist towards white men […] women of color and non-binary genders cannot be racist or sexist.” Instead of apologizing for her outright call for genocide, she simply appealed to her immutable demographic characteristics.

While the political-correctness police decry perceived slights against people based on their “marginalized group membership,” it seems that it is perfectly all right to openly attack a speaker’s background so long as he or she does not come from a marginalized group (whatever that means). How often have we heard the phrase “check your privilege”—as if one’s opinion requires scrutiny solely because of one’s race or socioeconomic status? How often have we heard someone bitterly complain, “oh, of course you think that; you’re [insert trait here]?”

The vilification of dissenters due to their demographic traits has a toxic effect on discourse and free speech. Of course, nobody wants to be labeled a racist, classist, etc. So many just lamentably keep their mouths shut, and in so doing deprive society of the opportunity for discussion. Needless to say, this is especially troubling in a collegiate atmosphere.

The Tory’s Advice: You are doing no one a favor by withholding your well-informed opinions. If someone has to resort calling out your race or socioeconomic status to support a point, not only is this probably a thinly veiled ad hominem attack, but also likely means he or she is struggling to oppose your logic.

3. Harassment and Trigger Warnings

 On July 15, the satirical news website The Onion published a delightful article entitled “Parents Dedicate New College Safe Space In Honor Of Daughter Who Felt Weird In Class Once.” The fictitious father said his daughter “felt weird after hearing someone discuss an idea that did not conform to her personally held beliefs,” and “sanctuary” was needed for “students exposed to perspectives different from their own.”

The Onion’s article was no doubt a response to the rise in popularity of the “trigger warning,” the latest in what The Atlantic refers to as a student-driven movement “to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or offense.” Trigger warnings are simple. If a text or film contains potentially “triggering” subject matter such as rape, racial slurs, or depictions of war, professors are requested to advise students ahead of time.

In addition to the pedagogical and psychological harms of insulating students from real life, trigger warnings and the demand for safe spaces stifle free speech and academic discussion. Out of fear of “triggering” students and possibly provoking claims of harassment, law professors are considering removing rape law from their criminal law curricula. Of course, this seems far-fetched; how could teaching aspiring lawyers about the law be harassment? Short answer: it’s not. But consider the witch hunt of Northwestern University film professor Laura Kipnis, who criticized trigger warnings in an essay on sexual paranoia. After graduate students complained she had created a hostile environment, she was subjected to a lengthy Title IX investigation and was fortunately cleared of all wrongdoing.

The tale of Professor Kipnis provides chilling insight into harassment allegations. She did nothing wrong. On the contrary, she sparked debate, discussion, and soul-searching; one generation ago, she would have been lauded as an exemplary professor. But in today’s era of political correctness, she was faced with the prospect of job loss simply for having the gall to oppose the coddling of her students. This saga seems to indicate that almost anything can be considered harassment.

The Tory’s Advice: Harassment is an extremely serious issue, and legitimate cases thereof should be dealt with swiftly and severely. But proper exercise of the right to participate in academic life, whether in discussions or in papers, can never be harassment. Do not fear retribution when you have to write about sensitive issues.

So What’s This Have To Do With Princeton?

While at Princeton, you will certainly repeat Triangle’s famous adage countless times—nothing ever happens in Princeton. For the most part, this is true. However, events last spring led to a passionate debate over free speech in our beloved Orange Bubble. A now-defunct student group called Urban Congo performed a dance that was perceived by many as racist towards Africans. The students issued a sincere apology and voluntarily disbanded. This may have been the end of the story, but at around the same time, students began to protest against Big Sean, a rapper invited by USG to perform at Lawnparties, due to his unquestionably misogynistic lyrics. Students drew up various petitions for the University’s review, penned editorials for the Daily Princetonian, and engaged in a series of ugly wars on Yik Yak.

At a community gathering in the Chapel, President Eisgruber condemned vitriolic remarks on the popular anonymous application, claiming they “have no place at Princeton.” This apparently was not enough for several offended students, many of whom carried signs saying “hate speech is not free speech” and turned their back on President Eisgruber while he spoke.

These students are entirely wrong; hate speech is free speech. It is vile, disgusting, and has no place in civilized society, but it nevertheless deserves full protection. As John Stuart Mill observes in On Liberty, “he who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” To truly understand an opposing view, one must hear it from its proponents, as only they are capable of presenting the view’s “most plausible and persuasive form.” Hence, it is vital that hate speech be protected. Allowing neo-Nazis and the KKK to freely protest reminds the rest of us just how unfathomably stupid their views truly are and reinforces the notion that bigotry is entirely unacceptable.

Moreover, in today’s atmosphere of microagressions and trigger warnings, it is not long until legitimate speech such as Professor Kipnis’s is deemed hate speech. Perhaps realizing this, Princeton’s faculty (yes, the same faculty that only months earlier voted for a guilty-until-proven-innocent standard in sexual assault investigations) recently adopted the following wonderful statement:

The University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.

Compared to many colleges nationwide, things are pretty good here at Princeton. Free speech is no exception. There is no official guide to microagressions (yet), and professors are not required to include trigger warnings on their syllabi. So don’t worry; there is no chance the University will take official action against you for your speech. However, a few of your peers will surely be willing to make a pariah out of you for fighting the liberal orthodoxy. We at the Tory say to let them. Many leftists love diversity—except diversity of opinion. Laugh at the hypocrisy. But don’t let it silence you.

Josh Zuckerman is the Editor-in-Chief of the Tory and a senior in the Politics Department. He is from Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at jrz@princeton.edu

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