Alger Hiss arrives on campus in 1956.
Alan Richards, Princeton University Archives
Exchanging ideas beyond retweeting

Now, there’s a man with an open mind: You can feel the draft from here.

— Serge B. Samovar, A Night in the Ukraine, 1979

To quote a learned man: “There is a reason that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is first, and that has much to do with the immense power of language.” Let’s downplay for the moment that the thought comes from me in our column of Jan. 11, and focus more on the meat of the issue. That observation doesn’t mean bupkis when it comes to broadly educating people on college campuses, either historically or today, because the Constitution delineates the government’s ability to control free speech — it can’t — as opposed to transactions among citizens and private groups. My editors and your boss have every right to take our brilliant ideas and beautifully crafted arguments and 1) make fun of them, or us, with gleeful abandon and 2) dropkick us from the premises on their account, if they’re in the mood. Not speaking for your boss, of course, but I never assume the editors are in fervent agreement with all that I say, just that they may be too distracted with more substantive alums or too convulsed in response to some pun or another to lay waste to my copy. So I tread lightly (sort of).

College campuses, however, should be different. If the goal of education is to develop the individual human mind for rigorous navigation of the broad seas of philosophical shoals and undertows, and if the goal of basic research is to expand the knowledge and wisdom of humankind, then there is no alternative but to allow widely varied views of the world, respectfully and equitably presented and argued, to be discussed in the public marketplace of ideas for strengthening, modification, or eventual dismissal. Not dismissal by force or fiat, but by logic and argument. The necessity to allow free speech, moreover to proactively encourage it by any legal means, so becomes a primary driving force of the academic enterprise and an existential sustenance to any institution that pretends to global thought leadership in any serious field of study.

But free speech is hard. Not because it’s unappetizing; it has the same comforting, familiar ring to it as baseball, mom, and nachos grande. It’s just one of those aspirational qualities that’s attractive when it’s superfluous — i.e. when everybody’s happy — and bothersome when it’s crucially required, as in times of stress and significant contentiousness. Let’s consider a few examples from the history of Princeton, which, born in the ethos of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, should have about as much compulsion toward richly argumentative thought as any place on the planet.

The Civil War offered a huge challenge to Princeton on many levels, because of its unique (with a possible nod to West Point, and its tradition of genteel Southern officers) nature as a training ground for students from across the country. Friction during the buildup to war in the 1850s was administered firmly but lovingly by President John Maclean Jr. 1816, who retained the trust of the Southern students (they formed perhaps a third of the student body) and their parents; meanwhile, he was a founder of the First Presbyterian Church of Color of Princeton in 1846. Ironically, after the Southerners left following the start of hostilities, remaining secessionist sympathizers from the North who tried to express their views didn’t fare well. One vocal New Yorker got taken to the college pump and doused with prejudice, let’s say, and when the three loyalist perps were identified and suspended, there was raucous support from the student majority on their way to the train station and exile. But no one else was manhandled during the war.

In the late 1870s, there was a kerfuffle surrounding a speaker who rented a hall on campus for a lecture on “Romanism.” It turned out nobody at the college had invited him, and his fee was quickly returned and the address canceled. Supporting free speech is difficult enough when there are two contentious sides present; with no sponsor to be found on campus, it seemed ridiculous. (That principle — no sponsor, no speech — has informally continued to this day.)

Whig-Clio, the group that has most often invited controversy onto campus in its debate-encouragement role, was half of the 20th-century team that constantly pushed Princeton toward the support of free speech. Its partner was, extraordinarily, a single and singular man, the redoubtable Rev. Norman Thomas 1905. Class valedictorian, enthusiastically loyal and influential alumnus, the minister-social worker represented both the falling of the University into the shadows and also its emergence from them: As an ardent pacifist in World War I, he was shamefully barred from campus for seven years by the nationalist President John Grier Hibben 1882 *1893; later, Hibben sponsored the Socialist presidential candidate for an honorary degree in 1932. Thomas’ brilliant speeches on campus regarding a vast range of his social causes — support for the poor, housing, universal education, racial equality, unions — were so effective in stirring the waters of the buttoned-down campus that all manner of other speakers, when invited, seemed welcome. When the administration of Harold Dodds *1914 barred U.S. Communist Party leader Earl Browder from speaking in 1939 (ostensibly because he was under indictment for passport forgery) although he had spoken just two years before, the Prince castigated the decision as “a fine example of bigotry in an institution where it would have been least expected.”  Subsequently, Browder, who lived in town, spoke on campus numerous times.

And so the ground was laid for the 1956 Whig-Clio invitation to Alger Hiss, convicted perjurer and suspected spy during the McCarthy Cold War red scares of the 1950s. In a dramatic trustees’ gathering remembered by John D. Fox ’76 in a memorable PAW article, the invitation stood, ostensibly to support Whig-Clio’s legitimacy, and perhaps as much a nod to McCarthy’s bitter foe Adlai Stevenson ’22 as to free speech. This event — which turned out to be intensely boring — then laid the groundwork for other high-profile speakers on campus soon after, to include such varied figures as Fidel Castro and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Perhaps the great test was on May 11, 1967, when Gov. George Wallace of Alabama brought his execrable brand of social and constitutional ignorance to Dillon Gym courtesy of Whig-Clio. Rather than undermine the University’s principles, it served as a civics lesson and a coming-out event for the new Association of Black Collegians, who waited for the speaker to get to his race-baiting “states’ rights” rhetoric, then walked out to hold their own rally elsewhere.

The most recent version of the University’s statement on free speech resides in Rights, Rules and Responsibilities, up front where it’s impossible to miss: “It is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”

There will always be debate surrounding the outer reaches of this principle; in the most recent versions, the discussion has wandered into such ideas as privilege — which I’ve previously addressed here — and safe spaces, whatever that might mean in a world with Russians hacking elections and Kim Jung Un testing missiles.  

Which brings us to our own academic heroes, every bit the worthy modern successors to the academic traditions of President James McCosh, the preacher who admired Darwin, and to Norman Thomas himself, whose unflinching courage in the face of convention earned him the No. 24 position on PAW’s 2008 list of influential Princetonians, but who spiritually may be in a race with James Madison for No. 1. Let us honor, in their memory, professors Robert George and Cornel West *80.

The two personal friends and political opposites have over the years developed a breathtaking collegial approach to teaching wisdom, free inquiry, and the achingly beautiful aspects of learning. If you haven’t, you should read every word of their earlier conversation here in December, where many of the current impediments to free inquiry are dissected and evaluated (“safe spaces” do not fare well). Subsequently, the coincidence of those issues in academia with the increasingly odious level of public discourse in the United States have driven them to another level even more obvious. In March, they issued a joint statement on “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression,” which likewise demands your attention. My favorite part: “None of us is infallible.” This is a sadly necessary starting point for an age where much of the truth has become obfuscated by barnyard epithets.

It should be a matter of great import to Princetonians that our alma mater is capable, spiritually and by long practice, of fostering and rewarding such ideas and initiatives, but we cannot in any sense take them for granted, to assume that academic freedom is just a norm of some sort. It’s not. George and West have invited others who support their view to sign their statement. I’m going to, but I deeply respect your right to abstain, object, or oppose it. If you do, let me know.

That’s the entire point.