Amid all the summer news about Princeton — and there was a lot of it, as you will read here — one story has special relevance for PAW. The killing of George Floyd renewed earlier calls to rename the school and residential college named for Woodrow Wilson 1879 — and this time, the calls succeeded. The campus discussion continued with letters and petitions requesting — among other things — anti-racism programming, curricular changes, and oversight of racist behaviors and research, opening a debate on how the University can promote both racial justice and academic freedom.
When it comes to campus research and speech, what’s permissible, and how do we draw the line? PAW brought together three professors — Princeton’s Carolyn Rouse (anthropology) and Paul Starr (sociology) and Harvard Law School’s Randall Kennedy ’77 — for a Zoom conversation in July to discuss the roles of the University in advocating for social justice and in fostering free inquiry. You can read an account of the candid conversation on page 30.
PAW — intended to be a forum for alumni to communicate with the University and with each other — traditionally has taken an expansive view of speech, its editors believing that readers respond to ideas they find insulting or offensive with ... better ideas. Longtime readers of PAW’s letters section surely have gasped at some of the missives published in our pages over the years. Today, for example, letters opposing coeducation in the 1960s seem comical — but in their time, they weren’t funny. These days it’s often letters relating to race that give us pause.
“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,” says a statement adopted by the faculty in 2015. “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.” President Eisgruber ’83 wrote in The Daily Princetonian in July that “many people mistakenly treat free speech and inclusivity as competing values,” but universities must remain devoted to both.
What this means in real life is difficult to define. Over the summer, PAW board members had a spirited discussion about our letters to the editor. In general, we won’t print letters that we deem to be threatening, uncivil, or personal attacks, or letters that we know to be factually incorrect. Some readers think we don’t apply those standards enough; others believe we use them to exclude unpopular views. In light of the national focus on racial justice, should we have new standards on what’s appropriate for publication? At the end of the board discussion, we agreed that while some might want us to be more restrictive in our selection of letters, it would be hard, or impossible, to come up with rules that clarify exactly what’s over the line.
We look forward to hearing your thoughts on PAW letters — and including them in a robust (and civil) collection in our pages and online.
This year, PAW will publish 11 issues: monthly from September through July. Meanwhile, we are boosting our coverage at paw.princeton.edu, so you can read Princeton news when it’s current. (Subscribe to email updates at paw.princeton.edu/email.) Our commitment to print remains strong. But as I wrote in January, many alumni classes have found it difficult to fund their share of PAW’s budget, and the pandemic has added to PAW’s financial pressures. We believe that the new schedule will allow us to maintain and even strengthen the quality of our print magazine.