An Open Letter On Free Speech, Our Demands, and Civil Disruption

We write this letter in response to campus and nation-wide discussions that have emerged from our nonviolent sit-in conducted in Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber’s office in Nassau Hall on November 18, 2015. This demonstration was a culmination of efforts spanning the course of the past year by The Black Justice League to induce action on the part of the University to address and redress institutional failings in creating a safe and inclusive campus for Black students. This letter is intended to address troubling elements of the discourse we have seen at Princeton and to clarify any misconceptions around the demands made: a critical rethinking of Woodrow Wilson’s legacy at Princeton, a diversity distribution requirement for students and compulsory competency training for faculty and staff, and affinity housing and space for Black students.

Detractors have claimed that protests on campus have stifled ‘civil discourse’ and that protesters have unreasonably resorted to ‘extreme’ tactics in a manner that has left others unwilling to openly express their opinions for fear of intimidation, despite the apparent availability of open mechanisms through which to express grievances. As various interlocutors have highlighted, the actions and demands of BJL have opened up greater dialogue on a topic around which there was very little speech — and what speech there was, was in fact, narrow in scope and fundamentally dishonest. These critiques should be recognized as what they are: baseless claims made in an attempt to tone-police and ultimately to silence those whose voices have historically been repressed. Demanding that marginalized people present their concerns in a way that is most palatable to those who are responsible for addressing their grievances not only reveals a profound lack of historical understanding around the purpose of and conditions under which civil disobedience is employed, but it also maintains the oppressive status quo by placing the burden back on those marginalized to prove themselves worthy of being heard. By tone-policing and endorsing respectability politics, those within dominant groups move attention away from the real and substantive issues raised. Simultaneously, this serves to obfuscate the oppressive environment that precipitates such ‘drastic’ action by hyperscrutinizing the reactions and responses of the marginalized.

Another important subject concerns the operationalization of free speech. First, as public intellectuals of this subject have remarked, making tone-deaf appeals to the abstract and universally valued principle of free speech devoid of historical context and power analysis is often a tactic of derailment. This tactic is one that purposefully steers away from critical conversations around racism in order to maintain the racist status quo. Nevertheless, we think it is important to express our commitment to free speech yet caution against what we see as a persistent conflation of racially offensive and hostile speech with civil discourse. Freedom of speech is a mark of civil life and should be vigorously defended. However, if freedom of speech is defined as the ability to vilify, erase, and belittle, particularly, the historically marginalized, this definition does not align itself with the noble ideal of civility. Discourse that is dehumanizing, is, by definition, no longer civil.

It is also crucial that we do not intellectualize this discussion to the extent that it becomes wholly divorced from the lived experiences of students who are personally impacted by instances of racial violence, both in speech and action. The vast majority of university students are required to eat, sleep and socialize on campus. These campuses become our homes. With this in mind, the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of students must be of principal concern to the broader community and to those tasked with ensuring the safety and welfare of students. If Princeton University is the progressive institution it claims to be, it must make clear that racially charged rhetoric and conduct is not only antithetical to its mission, but that it also has no place at any rigorous academic institution, particularly in one that prides itself on producing influential intellectuals.

All this to say, the Black Justice League does not stand in opposition to the principle of free speech. In fact, we are extremely conscious of the fact that freedom of expression and association made possible the actions of November 18th and are significant vehicles through which we will propel meaningful change on this campus. What we challenge is the consistent deployment of free speech as justification for the marginalization of others. This not only severely distorts the issues, but lacks critical consideration of how that principle and its contemporary application is complicated by this nation’s fraught past and present: de jure racial exclusion from this nation’s institutions and police suppression of current #BlackLivesMatter protests, for instance. Rather, we envision a campus in which norms of mutual respect and understanding are fostered in conjunction with principles of free speech; a campus where the humanity of certain segments of the population is not under constant attack and where a re-evaluation of the institutions that produce these hostile experiences are debated rather than the lived experiences themselves.

This brings us to the discussion surrounding our demands. On Woodrow Wilson, avid defenders insist that not only was Wilson’s racism peripheral to his other, more progressive endeavors, but also that we must honor these valuable contributions in the present moment, thus overlooking his fundamental flaws. As a result of our actions, it has become clear that Woodrow Wilson was virulently racist, even by historical standards. What’s more, he institutionalized his racism. This racism was at the core of his policies both here at Princeton and as President of the United States. Woodrow Wilson discouraged the admission of Black students to Princeton, opposed Black suffrage, was an ardent KKK apologist, and re-segregated federal offices that had previously been integrated — costing many Black individuals and families their livelihoods and welfare. In addition, his racism was not restricted to U.S. borders, as his imperialist foreign policies detail. His racial animus was manifested in the invasion and occupation of Haiti as well as in the blockage of the passage of a Racial Equality Proposal presented by Japan in 1919 that guaranteed equal treatment as one of the principles of the League of Nations. It is extremely alarming that nowhere on this campus is this violent history acknowledged. Instead, the narrative Princeton has constructed around Woodrow Wilson is entirely celebratory and wholly dishonest.

Relatedly, another fraudulent critique is that the removal of his name would amount to an erasure of the past. We would counter that the University’s account of Woodrow Wilson is an egregious display of historical revisionism and the deliberate lack of acknowledgment of this racist legacy is erasure itself. Our actions have played a pivotal role in the critical task of educating not only the Princeton community, but the world at large and have also made explicit the importance of truth-telling. We believe an honest understanding of our past allows us to better shape our future and thus we do not want Woodrow Wilson’s history erased. As such, we have demanded that the University not just remove his name but also take responsibility for its history by formally recognizing Woodrow Wilson’s racist legacy in perpetuity, either with a plaque or with a web page.

Ultimately, to continue to honor such a man in the present manner is to spit in the face of students whose presence on this campus Woodrow Wilson would have abhorred. It belies the University’s purported commitment to inclusion and progress and reveals the University’s priorities to be that of maintaining the racist status quo over the safety of its students. The struggle against emblems of racism and white supremacy is global; students at universities nationwide, such as Georgetown, Yale, Brown, and Duke have expressed similar concern with those venerated on their campuses. In South Africa and at Oxford, students have organized under the banner of #RhodesMustFall to demand the removal of monuments honoring John Cecil Rhodes, an unapologetic racist. This is an opportunity for Princeton to act not only in accordance with its peer institutions who are already taking corrective action but to take the lead in a momentous and unprecedented way.

Many will suggest that University action on this demand will set a precedent that will ultimately lead us down a slippery slope. This misunderstands our demands and underestimates the centrality of Woodrow Wilson to life at Princeton. We are not simply demanding the removal of the name of a ‘flawed’ individual; Woodrow Wilson was much more than that. His racism was made evident in his policies that were often life-altering, as was the case for John Abraham Davis, a “Black midlevel manager in the Government printing office, with 30 years’ experience” and who was “by the end of Wilson’s first term, a broken man.” We are demanding that the University seriously contend with its troubled racial history — which includes a period in which Woodrow Wilson stated, “The whole temper and tradition of the place [Princeton] is such that no Negro has ever applied for admission, and it seems unlikely that the question will ever assume practical form,” — and make amends that reflect its purported mission and commitments, which should starkly contrast Woodrow Wilson’s. There are also other ways to commemorate Wilson’s legacy — both the good and the bad, which the University has failed to do — without naming a dining hall, a residential college, and a public policy school after him.

In regards to our proposal for an amendment to education requirements, opponents claim that such a stipulation would politicize the University. Not only is this claim not borne out empirically — given that such requirements exist at other peer institutions and others such as the University of Pennsylvania as well as across the University of California system — it reveals a lack of understanding of the demands made. The demands do not require that students take one particular course nor does it specify, beyond broad thematic areas, what the content of those courses should be. The proposal contains a wide range of classes and seeks to develop students’ ability to critically examine issues of diversity as well as historical and social norms and systems of power and inequality. This proposal is an amendment, rather than an addition, to the current Social Analysis (SA) distribution requirement, ensuring that one of the two SA classes allows students to critically examine issues of diversity and marginalization. This amendment to the curriculum will not stifle academic exploration any more than the other distribution requirements. In a rapidly diversifying and globalizing society, part of a university’s charge is equipping students for life in a multicultural world. Being able to understand the experiences and perspectives of others is an essential skill both in the workplace and as productive members of society. If Princeton seeks to cultivate students who are “in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations,” these students must be able to engage with the realities of the different peoples that exist in these nations.

In a similar vein, requiring cultural competency training for faculty is not imposing a particular doctrine onto Princeton’s faculty. Instead, it opens the door for a multitude of perspectives and ideas. Cultural competence requires a recognition of one’s own cultural identity and approach to difference as well as the capacity to learn about and integrate the cultural backgrounds of one’s students in one’s pedagogy. Cultural competency training is crucial in equipping educators to promote an educational setting that is conducive to success for all students, which many Princeton educators fail to provide. Members of the student body have expressed feelings of emotional and psychological harm as well as overall feelings of unsafety in interactions that they have had with professors, preceptors, and administrators as a result of offensive and racist behavior often stemming from ignorance and a lack of understanding. The University must actively work to address this at both a macro- and micro-level. While the Council of the Princeton University (CPUC) Task Force released recommendations that sought to address these issues on a micro-level, the University must work towards substantial initiatives that would affect the entire faculty. Comprehensive cultural competency training would significantly improve interactions between students, faculty, and preceptors across all departments. Educators with the knowledge and the tools to appreciate and engage with diversity among students will facilitate a learning environment intended to serve all students.

With regards to affinity housing and space dedicated to specific cultural groups, the Black Justice League believes that it is of the utmost importance to provide spaces dedicated solely to marginalized groups. It is not simply about students being “safe” from having their values challenged, as attending a liberal arts institution should encourage every student to question their deepest convictions. It is about having a refuge from a campus — and a society — that is at best, apathetic, and at worst, hostile to the issues that Black students face. It is about having a place where Black students can have dignity and comfort and engage in self-healing with those who have had similar experiences and who care just as deeply about issues that plague their community. It is important for marginalized groups to have spaces where they are not constantly being pushed to assimilate into the dominant community by hiding important aspects of their identity. Our peer institutions see the importance of these spaces because they realize that they help facilitate community-building and improve the overall well-being of select demographics, which in turn improves the overall well-being of the University. Even Princeton, in its past history, provided such a space, known as the “Third World Center” and it is this space that many Black alumni note was pivotal to their Princeton experience. Those who denounce the notion of safe spaces are often those for whom safety is a fact of life by virtue of the privileges they have based on the identities they inhabit. Conversely, nowhere in the world is truly safe for Black bodies, but affording affinity spaces can provide some respite, albeit fleeting, from the harsh realities of living in an anti-Black world.

Finally, the Black Justice League would like to address the discussion surrounding our decision to hold a sit-in the President’s office in order to have our demands properly addressed. Let’s be clear: The Black Justice League has been employing official channels of advocacy embedded in the University bureaucratic structure for the past year. The Black Justice League formed in November 2014 and has since met with the following key administrators and administrative bodies, many of them on a recurring basis:

  • Former Vice President for Campus Life, Cynthia Cherrey
  • University President, Christopher Eisgruber
  • Former Dean, Office of the Dean of the College/VP for Campus Life, Tara C. Kinsey
  • Vice Provost for Institutional Equity & Diversity, Michele Minter
  • Deputy Dean of Undergraduate Students, Thomas Dunne
  • Princeton University Provost, David Lee
  • Current Vice President for Campus Life, W. Rochelle Calhoun
  • Dean of the Faculty, Deborah Prentice
  • Director of Carl A. Fields Center, Tennille Haynes
  • Director of Women’s Center, Amada Sandoval
  • Former Director of LGBT Center, Debbie Bazarsky
  • Undergraduate Student Government (USG)

In addition, it is through our activism that the CPUC Special Task Force on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion was created and a number of initiatives launched. Members of the Black Justice League, in conjunction with other students, faculty, and staff, served on each committee of the Task Force and, thus, met with even more administrators on a bi-weekly basis. We have exercised all of these bureaucratic channels frequently and consistently, only to be told that we needed to convince administrators of the marginalization that Black students faced on this campus. Consequently, conversation after conversation was initiated under the guise of improving marginalized students’ experiences. Conversation has always been our primary form of communication. And while we have accomplished quite a few major feats over the past year, the University has remained stagnant or recalcitrant on a number of significant concerns raised by the BJL. At an institution designed to resist change, when certain strategies no longer proved fruitful, it was imperative that we adapt accordingly and adopt new tactics that would apply increased pressure on the University. Hence, the actions of November 18th.

In an article in The Progressive, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said of the 1960s civil rights sit-ins initiated by Black college students, “An electrifying movement of Negro students has shattered the placid surface of campuses and communities…” The same can be said of the present moment. Across the nation, Black college students are organizing and holding their institutions accountable, forcing them to reckon with their racially fraught past and present and demanding that they do better and be better for their Black students. Like the movements of the past, the actions of Black students today have been met with mixed reactions. Ultimately, however, time and justice put those students on the right side of history, and we too, believe, that we will be vindicated by history and justice. We hope that the Princeton community will join us and truly work towards a more inclusive and equitable campus.

Black Justice League

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store