As a recent graduate of Princeton University, I am occasionally treated to e-mail messages from Princeton Pause, which styles itself as “a monthly e-greeting that brings Princeton closer to Princetonians everywhere”. In short, the university tries to avoid becoming too distant a memory in the minds of its departed students, partly in the hope of eliciting generous alumni donations to its Annual Giving program. The latest such Valentine I received featured a short video clip of a speech by the estimable Anthony Grafton—a former History professor of mine—on “what makes Princeton unique.”
This question has crossed my mind often of late. On the whole, I enjoyed my time at Old Nassau, and will forever cherish the memories and hopefully lifelong friends I made there. In just the past several weeks, I have been pleasantly reminded of the key role my Princeton experience has played in my personal development by sporadic visits to campus, encounters with former classmates and attendance at various alumni gatherings. Yet not until I recently learned of a despicable episode at the University of Massachusetts did I begin to approach answering the question of what makes Princeton unique.
The episode in question concerns the appearance of conservative columnist Don Feder on UMass’ Amherst campus on March 11th of this year. Feder opposes hate crimes laws as a criminalization not only of acts but of thoughts and beliefs—“hate” being a state of mind rather than a form of conduct, or so the argument goes. This viewpoint predictably incurred the wrath of most of UMass Amherst’s student body. The result was that Feder’s speech, which was sponsored by UMass’ Republican Club, was systematically disrupted and derailed by a swarm of left-wing student protestors. As shown in a video posted on YouTube by a group of the protestors themselves (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJPmv1vTbjc), the students hissed and booed Feder. Some noisily reversed their chairs to turn their backs to him. One student loudly interrupted his speech with a statement about one victim of an allegedly racist and homophobic hate crime. The harassment mounted to a fever pitch, until Feder finally gave up protesting this unseemly treatment and left the podium.
The case against this disgrace is obvious—and virtually unassailable. Whatever Feder’s detractors might think of his views, it is beyond dispute that he had a right to express them without intimidation or disruption. Feder’s speech was to be followed with a question-and-answer session in which his student opponents could have critiqued his position as extensively as they liked. They denied themselves that opportunity, however, by effectively running him off the stage. “This is free speech,” cried one young woman in defense of the students’ shenanigans. It seems not to have occurred to her that Feder’s speech deserved to be as “free” as hers and her schoolmates’.
Are there any circumstances under which the protestors’ actions may have been justified? The only such case I can imagine would be if Feder had engaged in what the US Supreme Court’s free speech jurisprudence has described as “fighting words”: speech that deliberately incites violence or other forms of criminal conduct. Had Feder taken the stage to advocate acts that would have qualified as hate crimes, that would have been a different story. Yet he did no such thing, merely arguing that violent crimes committed for bigoted reasons should be punished in exactly the same way as all other violent crimes. There may be a mountain of sound, rational arguments to make against this thesis. Not one of them was heard at UMass two months ago.
This, unfortunately, was not an isolated incident. Such nonsense has become more and more common on college campuses across the US in recent years, as political polarization of the American electorate has set in and the American academy has drifted further and further leftward. On at least two occasions in the past several years, African-American advocate Ward Connerly met a similar fate when he took his campaign against affirmative action to the University of Michigan campus. This unseemly behavior, of course, cuts both ways on the ideological spectrum. I still remember with unease the war fever that gripped the US before and during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the widespread intolerance for the expression of opposition to the war that came with it. New York Times reporter Chris Hedges, for instance, was forced from the stage by protesters during his commencement speech at Rockford College in Illinois after criticizing the war. Conservative pundits in general were as likely to applaud as to protest such shameful conduct.
The relevance of these incidents to Princeton’s virtues is no doubt obvious by this point. I have heard of at least one case in Princeton history in which jeering protesters discombobulated an appearance by a speaker deemed controversial by much of the student body. On March 5th, 1970, during President Richard Nixon’s brief expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, almost fourscore antiwar students at an ecology conference in Jadwin Gym heckled Interior Secretary Walter J. Hickel to distraction while then-University President Robert F. Goheen looked on furiously. As far as I know, however, such cases have been mercifully rare within the Orange Bubble.
In all my time on campus, I recall no such foolishness taking place. From the “Frist Filibuster” in the spring of 2005, to the running battle over abortion waged in the letters section of the Prince throughout most of 2006, I cannot remember any incident on campus in which one or more parties to a debate found themselves bullied into silence. I remember attending a presentation in the spring of 2007 at which anti-abortion advocate Dr. Charmaine Yoest of the Family Research Council gave a speech entitled “How Abortion Harms Women”. Sponsored in part by the Woodrow Wilson School—it was hosted in Bowl 16 of Robertson Hall—this event, as hot-button as its topic was, proved a model of civility. Dr. Yoest’s speech was followed by a Q&A session in which the students—a mostly pro-choice lot that included Sara Viola ‘08, then head of Princeton Pro-Choice Vox—subjected the speaker to rigorous scrutiny and criticism of her views. Through it all, not a sentence was cut off, not a personal attack made, not a voice raised in anger.
During my time on campus, I heard countless complaints about how politically jaded, complacent and apathetic Princetonians were, at least as compared with their counterparts at, say, Columbia. This criticism was well enough taken by me; but I hope Princeton never travels so far down the road of political activism as to become another UMass or University of Michigan.
Is it too much to ask that all students at all communities of higher learning show a similar tolerance and respect for opposing viewpoints? Am I to believe that only elite institutions like Princeton can hold their students to this same standard? Surely—hopefully—not. However, if civility and rationality in public (and especially political) discourse, and the free contention of a hundred or more schools of thought, are to remain primarily the province of America’s top-notch universities, that makes me that much more grateful to have attended one of those schools. There are many advantages to a Princeton education, most of which are obvious enough that I need not regurgitate them here. One that usually receives far less emphasis than it deserves, however, is that Princeton is the kind of place where neither Don Feder, nor Ward Connerly, nor any of their ilk would ever find themselves muzzled by an unruly mob—no matter how abhorrent their views might be to the bulk of the student body.
This does not make Princeton “unique” in the strictest sense of the word—ours is hardly the only university whose students behave so civilly and intelligently. Yet in these politically polarized times, Old Nassau may find itself approaching this kind of uniqueness asymptotically. And you know what? That’s good enough for me.