Norman Thomas 1905 speaks at a peace rally at the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., Nov. 27, 1965.
AP Images

Let the phones be smart, and you be wise. — Cornel West *80

As the many-faceted slow-motion train wreck of 2020 continues merrily on its way, we have needed to look to the past to recall lessons of mistakes and triumphs of yesteryear to better focus on current challenges and towering frustrations. Last time, we reviewed the lessons of Woodrow Wilson 1879. This time around, also in response to recurrent racism, we return to other familiar territory which requires refreshment, but for the opposite reason. Ambivalence is the blood enemy of free speech.

You’re welcome — nay, advised — to return to our previous historical discussion of free speech at Princeton, which oddly is far, far stronger than our history in relation to racism. This has to do with some crucially important folks being in the right place at the right time, including the towering socialist Norman Thomas 1905. Thomas, likely the the best intellect turned out by Wilson during his time as Princeton president, was — not aggressively, but simply by his own life and clarity of purpose — a one-man truth squad, not in trying to dragoon everyone into his ideas, but in allowing everyone’s ideas to be expressed openly and meaningfully. 

This is where we need to pause and recall clearly that this is not a First Amendment discussion. That applies to the government; the University (or your business or church, or whatever) can set much narrower limits on your expression, and your only options are to comply or leave. So when we cast an enquiring eye on our own community, we need to focus on the trustees, of course, who make the rules, but otherwise on the constituent groups around campus who bring them to life — or not.

The lesson ever before us in this regard is (not surprisingly) Thomas, but in a unique way. President John Grier Hibben 1882 *1893 banned him from speaking on campus during World War I because, to be blunt, Hibben was pro-war and Thomas was a pacifist. Both being ordained ministers, this was a bit sticky, and a large cadre of alumni who always loved Thomas were incensed at the ban. Hibben’s eventual enlightenment led to Thomas’ honorary degree at Hibben’s last Princeton Commencement in 1932, cited as a “fearless and upright advocate for change in the social order.” Five months later, as a socialist, he received 884,885 votes for president in the Roosevelt landslide that transformed the country. Despite occasional hiccups (see: the Hickel Heckle in 1970), free speech on the Princeton campus, governed solely by the invitation of members of the community, has since been respected and valued. Alger Hiss. Martin Luther King Jr. Fidel Castro. George Wallace. All spoke there in the next 35 years. 

Before his death in 1968, Thomas railed against the Vietnam War while simultaneously saying that leftist protesters should be “washing the flag, not burning it.” In that supercharged time, the faculty, a significant center of power since the day Wilson hired the preceptors in 1905, took a look at itself as a power nexus and didn’t like what it saw. This was a precursor to the Kelley Committee, whose landmark report on the governance of the University not only created the Council of the Princeton University Committee, the common ground of discussion for all component groups of the community ever since, but clarified power relationships and laid the basis for Rights, Rules, Responsibilities, the behavioral bible of the entire campus, which with many tweaks and upgrades stands today.  

In no small way honoring Norman Thomas, RRR addresses free speech as follows:

“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.”

Cut back to the present day. Renewed public discussion of racism in America, much as three years ago, has led to extended self-examination within centers of power and influence across the land, to include Princeton. Community members by invitation have again chimed in with opinions and ideas; undergrads, grad students, faculty/staff, alums, op-ed writers, administrators, far beyond what we can review here. That being said, one document comprising 48 “demands,” signed by more than 300 faculty and staff members, deserves mention. One of the proposals is this: 

“Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.”

Princeton’s free speech policy above ensures the right of these 300-plus people to suggest this. The thought experiment for you, the Discerning Historian, is simple: Imagine a form of implementing the demand which does not violate the stated rules of free speech on campus. Let me know.

Once again, as four years ago, I would draw your attention to two folks who think about such things for a living, and are very good at it but don’t agree on most other ideas. Professor Robby George and Professor Emeritus Cornel West *80 are still out there preaching civility and intellect, even in these times of ascendant idiocy, most notably in a recent open letter to the citizenry on the urgent need for “honesty and courage.” The Prince was bright enough to round them up in late July to get an update, a fascinating deconstruction including not only truth-seeking and free speech itself, but those exemplifying them like Harriet Tubman, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the man King called the bravest person he ever met: Norman Thomas. The spirit of the call is of openness and humility, of human frailty and flaws, of willingness to risk and grow. If you, the Discerning Historian, simply listen to this call, Princeton will be a better place. The catch is, if you don’t listen to it, Princeton will actually be worse. There are no bystanders here.

The Pre-read for the Class of 2022 two years ago was Professor Keith Whittington’s Speak Freely, and I cite his closing paragraph because, honestly, I can do no better:

“If students are to prepare themselves to critically engage the wide range of perspectives and problems that they will encounter out in the world across their lifetimes, they must learn to grapple with and critically examine ideas they find difficult and offensive… Recognizing and respecting the principles of free speech is difficult and challenging, but there is no alternative if we are dedicated to the pursuit of truth. And the pursuit of truth is the noble and important mission of the modern university.”

Through great effort and much good fortune, Princeton’s track record in this is admirable. But that can all vanish in a moment, so we all must actively continue the work with honesty and courage.