In Response to: Clash of Values?

A profound thank-you to President Eisgruber ’83 and the Princeton faculty who reaffirmed Princeton’s commitment to protecting free speech (On the Campus, May 13). Throughout history, we’ve seen innumerable examples of why it’s not a good idea to persecute someone for the expression of an idea — any idea, no matter how offensive it seems. Take, for example, the idea that the Earth orbits the sun, or criticism of the monarchy or the ruling government. As a more recent hypothetical example, suppose that a journalist took pictures of the protests in Ferguson, Mo. Also suppose that publication of certain of those photographs was prohibited (and punishable) as offensive to a certain group — say, the protesters ... or the police. Where would artistic expression — or, quite frankly, reality — be then?

The problem with equating Naimah Hakim ’16’s concept of “human dignity” with “free speech,” and in doing so stating that some speech therefore can be prohibited, is that someone has to decide which humans are to be protected, what their “dignity” is that must be kept sacrosanct, and what the punishment is for those who transgress those boundaries — a fine, imprisonment, death? Most any viewpoint or expression can be seen by someone in society as offensive or insulting. It takes time and effort to provide an opportunity, as President Eisgruber did through the event in the Chapel, for dialogue to understand a particular viewpoint and explain to the one who expressed it why it is offensive to you. It is much easier, perhaps, as the students did, to turn your back and walk out, chanting (not listening) as you go. But it is the former that is so badly needed.

Betsy Kohl ’99