President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Exploring the Limits of Free Speech
April 20, 2005
Freedom of expression is one of the bedrocks on which colleges and universities are built. Indeed, a democracy like ours depends upon colleges and universities to foster the exploration of ideas in an open-minded and dispassionate manner, both inside and outside the classroom. By playing this role, we endeavor to ensure that diverse and, sometimes, contentious ideas can be articulated and analyzed, leading to a deeper understanding of difficult issues.
As the dockets of American courts attest, however, the precise limits of free speech are continually in dispute, and this is equally true on campuses such as ours. Every year, I am asked to respond to charges that someone has abused his or her freedom of expression or, conversely, that someone’s freedom of expression has been violated. The specifics of these charges differ, but all reflect a tension that has less to do with legal definitions of free speech than with the degree to which convictions and sensibilities that differ from one’s own should be accommodated. This tension—and I believe it is a healthy one—is reflected in Princeton’s own institutional guidelines, Rights, Rules, Responsibilities, which state that our University community “attaches great value to freedom of expression and vigorous debate, but it also attaches great importance to mutual respect, and it deplores expressions of hatred directed against any individual or group.”
This winter I used dinner conversations with students—at eating clubs and residential colleges—to discuss this issue, motivated in part by the fact that colleges and universities, including Princeton, have been experiencing a spate of challenges to both freedom of expression and its second cousin, academic freedom. It was easy enough to agree that shouting “Fire!” during a performance in Richardson Auditorium without any evidence of smoke or flames is speech that puts others in harm’s way and cannot be condoned. We also concurred that patently false positions should not be sanctioned with a formal platform, whether this involves a harmless delusion (e.g., that the moon is made of cheese) or a deeply prejudicial belief (e.g., that the Holocaust is a fabrication). The question with which we really wrestled was how to deal with words or other forms of communication that inflict emotional distress. Circumstances vary widely—from a heated exchange in a preceptorial to a deliberate editorial decision—and much depends on one’s perspective: the offended and the offender are likely to see things very differently.
My own view is that we must do everything in our power to create a climate on our campus that is both strongly protective of free speech and acutely mindful of its potential consequences. The two are by no means incompatible. Indeed, I would argue that a commitment to think before one speaks should be the hallmark of any academic community, implying, as it does, a willingness to be self-critical as well as critical of others, to ground one’s words in fact instead of ignorance, and to take other points of view into account when framing one’s words. The tone and content of discourse at Princeton suggests that we generally express our differences in a way that is at once respectful and constructive, but there are times when all of us fall short of this mark.
How our University community responds to offensive communication says much about our dual commitment to freedom of expression and mutual respect. A recent incident involving a student publication is, I think, instructive. As some of you may know, the Nassau Weekly published a “top 10 list” in February that made light of the Holocaust under the heading “And Now For Something Completely Offensive.” The list lived up to its billing and provoked a sharply critical response in many quarters, prompting its authors, who also serve as editors of the Nassau Weekly, to issue an apology in the following issue. “The list,” they acknowledged, “was written in extremely poor taste and we are deeply sorry for any pain we caused.” The publication of this list prompted another student organization, the Princeton Committee on Prejudice (PCOP), to assemble responses from concerned students, which it then shared with the authors. PCOP also arranged for some of these respondents to meet with members of the Nassau Weekly’s editorial staff. The result, according to PCOP chair Dylan Tatz ’06, “was a wonderful experience” in which “we really got to the root of why exactly we found this offensive.”
I am pleased that despite the distress this incident occasioned, it unfolded in so positive a way. There may be a temptation in such situations to call for punitive measures, but as Dean of Undergraduate Students Kathleen Deignan likes to say, “Bad speech is best dealt with by better speech.” Indeed, freedom of expression’s strongest guarantee is arguably the fact that someone will abuse it. Only then will many people exercise their right to free speech and contest the message that offended them, raising everyone’s awareness of the issues at play. In the words of longtime Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, “a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.” Censorship represses offensive communication, but it also absolves us of our duty to rebut such material, to engage the other party in forceful debate, and, in the end, to educate. That is what occurred in the dialogue that took place between the Nassau Weekly and its critics, and Princeton as a whole is stronger for it.