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Princeton professor, free speech leader hopeful about academic freedom initiative

‘I hope the new initiative will improve the campus environment,’ Princetonians for Free Speech president said. ‘But I will believe it when I see it.’

A Princeton University ethics center announced this month a new initiative dedicated to academic freedom and supported by several professors.

“Academic freedom is under threat in many parts of the world,” states a Sept. 11 news release from the University Center for Human Values, an interdisciplinary research and teaching center at Princeton.

“UCHV is launching an Academic Freedom Initiative which sets itself two tasks: first, it will revisit and critically probe the normative and legal bases of academic freedom,” it stated. “Second, it aims to better understand why and how academic freedom is being attacked—and what kinds of defenses might be successful in particular circumstances.”

Princeton politics Professor Jan-Werner Müller, who directs the initiative, told The College Fix via email that it is “urgent” to engage with questions such as, “Why exactly are aspiring authoritarians targeting universities?”

“What are their strategies?” Müller (pictured, left) continued, hypothetically. “How should academics, administrators, and others respond?”

“For instance, should they claim that science is neutral, or should they argue that universities actually do stand for particular values and mobilize citizens more generally for their defense?” Müller said.

“As of now, the Initiative does not intend to issue statements … but to make arguments and empirical evidence available to interested audiences, national and beyond, so that they can form their own views,” Müller wrote.

Conservative Princeton Professor Robert George expressed his enthusiasm for the initiative in an email to The Fix. 

“I’m delighted to learn about the UCHV’s initiative on academic freedom,” he wrote. He added he expects it will “usefully complement” the James Madison Program’s Initiative on Freedom of Thought, Inquiry, and Expression.

“The more oars in the water in defending academic freedom, the better—especially at a time when freedom of speech and related values are under attack from elements within universities as well as forces outside them,” said George (pictured).

“Princeton’s poor showing in the [Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression] free speech rankings is disappointing,” George wrote to The Fix. “Despite [the university’s adopted University of Chicago free speech principles], however, a great many of our students, especially those who hold opinions that are at variance with dominant views on campus, report censoring themselves, not only in class discussions but also in conversations outside class.”

“Even some of our faculty censor themselves,” he said. “This is tragic.”

“If we are to be a community of truth-seekers—if the university is to prosecute its truth-seeking mission—we must all be free, and feel free, to speak our minds,” George added. “Indeed, it is our duty—I use that word advisedly—to speak our minds.”

Stuart Taylor, president and co-founder of Princetonians for Free Speech, told The Fix that he hopes “the new initiative will improve the campus environment.”

“I will believe it when I see it,” Taylor added.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) ranked Princeton at 187 out of 248 schools with a “below average” score in its fourth annual “College Free Speech Rankings,” which evaluates the state of free expression on campus. The survey, conducted via the College Pulse mobile app, included 55,102 student respondents from 254 colleges and universities.

Forty-eight percent of Princeton undergraduates agree that any speech that uses discriminatory language or that a group or class of persons finds offensive or hurtful should not be allowed on campus, according to a 2023 survey of current Princeton undergraduates by Princetonians for Free Speech. Seventy-six percent of Princeton undergraduates say it is always, sometimes, or rarely acceptable to shout down a speaker on campus.

The Academic Freedom Initiative will host its inaugural event, a panel of experts, on Oct. 2.

Müller told The Fix the panel will explore the philosophical and legal bases of academic freedom and feature scholars from around the world who have had their freedoms restricted or observed restrictions elsewhere.

The panelists have not all been announced, but Müller said Princeton politics Professor Keith Whittington will be a speaker. Whittington chairs the academic committee at the Academic Freedom Alliance.

Academic Freedom Initiative’s sponsor, the University Center for Human Values, was founded in 1990 to promote multi-disciplinary scholarship on “important ethical issues in private and public life,” according to its website. The center hosts visiting researchers, sponsors courses, hosts lectures and awards thesis prizes.

MORE: Rowdy protesters shut down Princeton professor’s ‘truth-seeking’ speech

IMAGE: Princeton University; Jay_Yuan/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Abigail Anthony - Princeton University