The petition to remove Witherspoon’s statue characterizes Princeton’s campus as a “home” where students should enjoy safety and protection from “discomfort.” Campus should arguably be the opposite — a place where discomforting ideas and wide-open debate is championed. Princeton’s students are intelligent and inquiring. It is presumptuous, even insulting, to assume they need protection from Witherspoon’s legacy.
Princeton promises thorough review, including input from academic experts, before making a decision. The website of Princetonians for Free Speech, an alumni group on whose board I serve, includes an essay by Witherspoon scholar Kevin DeYoung. To those who argue that Witherspoon’s ownership of two slaves sidelines his life’s legacy, DeYoung replies, “ … bare facts do not tell the whole story — not the whole story about Witherspoon the [Princeton] president and patriot, nor the whole story about how Witherspoon related to slaves and free Blacks, what he believed about slavery, and what he hoped America, as it related to slavery, would be like in the future.”
Cancel culture is demonstrably disastrous for academic freedom and open debate in higher education. In today’s climate of self-censorship, “listening sessions” cannot possibly reveal the true thoughts of the broad Princeton community. If petitioners succeed in pressuring Princeton’s leadership to remove the statue, it will perpetuate threats to academic freedom at Princeton by sending a message to faculty and students that they must submit to the dominant ideology or they too, could be erased.