It’s time for both universities and their students to recognize that the principle of free speech can and often will conflict with the principle of “inclusivity”, for any time someone is offend by what another person says—or if a statement conflicts with someone’s ideology or values—that person feels “excluded”. Nowadays, of course, exclusion in this way, synonymous with “offense”, is equated with “harm”—or even “violence.” That’s a false equivalence, degrading the meaning of the latter two terms.
And when we have a conflict like this, most thoughtful people have decided that freedom of speech must trump “inclusivity”, most often abrogated by what students call “hate speech.” For anybody can claim offense about anything, and, as I’ve often said, one person’s “hate speech” is another person’s “debatable speech”, i.e., free speech. A few examples: criticism of abortions, of Islam, of affirmative action, and of the claim that transgender people are absolutely identical to members of the biological sex whose gender they’ve adopted. All of these have been deemed “hate speech.” Should they be banned? Not on your life.
Now I hasten to add that I find racist speech abhorrent, and would do what I can to counteract it, but through counter-speech, not through banning speech I don’t like. Should a student be able to call Jews “Hebes” or “Yids” and accuse them of being money-grubbing power-mongers seeking to take over the world? Yes, of course they should be allowed, even though I’m a secular Jew. Those words are offensive to me, but I wouldn’t for the world suggest that the person who said them be punished. I’d just say he’s an idiot. Ditto with someone saying “Gas the Jews.” That is legal speech, for it doesn’t present an imminent and predictable danger of real harm.
But the editors of the Princeton student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, don’t agree. They say that a university that fosters diversity and inclusivity must ban “racist speech” (which is of course undefined). The editorial is signed by all the members of the Princetonian editorial board save a brave dissenter: one Zachariah Sippy.
Their intent is clear: punish people who exercise their free-speech rights to say things considered racist by others. (All quotes from the paper.)
We have received many messages professing the University’s commitment to the ongoing fight for racial equality in the United States. But actions speak louder than words. What does it mean to increase faculty and staff diversity, as President Eisgruber announced he intends to do, if the community they join does not stand against racism they may encounter?
. . .These ideas cause demonstrable harm to students of color who make up the University community. They force students to question their place on our campus, because they suggest Black people’s intellectual or behavioral inferiority make them incapable of succeeding in higher education.
. . . Those who use free speech to defend racist ideas are essentially saying that it is acceptable for Black students to exist in a perpetual state of discomfort, leaving them vulnerable to numerous traumatic experiences, in the name of an abstract principle that is prioritized over the well-being of our community members.
I would suggest that any time you see the word “harm” in a piece like this, you should mentally substitute the word “offense”.
Read the editorial, published a month ago, by clicking on the screenshot:
To try to sneak around freedom of speech, the editors suggest that Princeton already bans hate speech in its own regulations. From the paper:
Time and time again the University has acted as an enemy to justice, abusing its powers by deploying free speech language when addressing charges of racism. So it is time for a shift in power. Written in the free speech policy is the stipulation that speech “directly incompatible with the functioning of the University” can be restricted.
But if you look at that free speech policy (which isn’t by the way, linked to the article, you find that speech incompatible with university functioning is the same type of speech that courts have ruled is not protected by the First Amendment.
From Princeton’s Statement on Freedom of Expression:
The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.
This is in fact word-for-word identical to the University of Chicago’s Principles of Free Expression:
The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.
So no, just as Chicago wouldn’t ban racist speech, or any legal speech, so Princeton wouldn’t, either. This has gotten the editors’ knickers in a twist.
To further underscore the editors’ misunderstanding of free speech, they conflate sit-ins that block Princeton’s access to buildings, and are against University regulations, with free speech:
Yet, Nassau Hall’s [the Princeton administration building] supposedly unwavering conviction that free speech — even that which makes one uncomfortable — is our institution’s lifeblood fell apart when administrators were made to feel uncomfortable. In the fall of 2015, the University threatened student activists from the Black Justice League with disciplinary consequences. The administration further denied these students secure accommodations, even when they received death threats. That is the very definition of suppressing speech.
No, you chowderheads! The activists were threatened not because they were saying anything particular, but because they were illegally staging a sit-in in Nassau Hall. You have the right to say what you want, but you don’t have the right to occupy University space against regulations. That is known as civil disobedience, and comes with the stipulation that you have to suffer the legal or disciplinary consequences. I have a right to protest Donald Trump’s policies, but I don’t have the right to do so by entering the Capitol and expatiating from the Senate floor.
The students don’t seem to understand that a University can be opposed to racism, and enact policies to prevent it, and to foster inclusion, diversity, and equality of opportunity, yet at the same time foster a strong policy of free speech. The university doesn’t promulgate racism (I seriously doubt that Princeton is “structurally racist”), but it doesn’t punish speech deemed racist—unless it constitutes personal and repeated harassment. But that kind of harassment is already illegal.
I thought Princeton students were supposed to be smart. I guess they are, but these editors are also ignorant. One would think that, of all people, editors of a newspaper would understand the meaning of “freedom of speech.”