Photo: David Ho/Inside Higher Ed | Document: James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions
It’s been nearly a decade since the development of the Chicago principles on campus free expression.
In 2014, the University of Chicago’s then president and provost appointed the Committee on Freedom of Expression, a group of professors, to draft the document. Since then, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression says more than 100 other higher education institutions and/or their faculties, starting with Princeton University in 2015, have endorsed either the Chicago principles or something substantially similar.
“The university has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it,” the principles say in part.
Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions has now released the “Princeton Principles for a Campus Culture of Free Inquiry.” The document says it extends the “scope” of the Chicago principles.
The so-called Princeton Principles—despite the name, they haven’t been endorsed by the university’s leaders—are more extensive, providing some detailed suggestions on what academic institutions should do, and not do, to promote academic freedom and free speech for students and faculty members.
“Universities have a special fiduciary duty [italics in original] to foster freedom of thought for the benefit of the societies that sustain them,” the Princeton Principles say.
And they don’t say that only those on campus should play a role in ensuring free speech and academic freedom prevail.
“If there is clear and convincing evidence that faculty members and administrators are not adequately fulfilling their responsibilities to foster and defend a culture of free inquiry on campus, other agents including regents, trustees, students and alumni groups in the wider campus network may and indeed should become involved,” they say. “Such entities should take care not to dictate or prohibit any idea or argument, but to promote a culture of free inquiry in opposition to all policies and actions that directly or indirectly discourage robust discourse.”
The Princeton Principles further say, “Trustees and regents should also oppose and resist government mandates that would harm the honest pursuit of truth and the cultivation of free inquiry, such as bans on disfavored topics and subjects. Government interventions should be a last resort, but governments (along with trustees and regents) may legitimately prohibit speech codes and related policies that inhibit or punish speech protected by free speech jurisprudence and academic freedom.”
“We open that door, and Chicago didn’t do anything like that,” said Donald A. Downs, the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Alexander Meiklejohn Professor of Political Science Emeritus and one of the principles’ developers.
This summer, Texas A&M University’s botched hiring of a Black professor—who had worked as a New York Times editor and also had done work in diversity, equity and inclusion—reiterated that regents and alumni can have a possibly negative, and conservative, influence on academic freedom. In that case, an alumni group and at least some Board of Regents members pushed back against the now-failed effort to hire her.
And Republican-controlled legislatures in multiple states took swipes this year at faculty members’ tenure protections and universities’ DEI efforts.
Downs said regents, trustees and politicians are already getting involved.
“We are kind of acknowledging that we have this kind of ferment, and we’re putting our voice into it to make sure, if it happens, it’s done in a way that does not end up suppressing the views of the left or the right or the center,” he said. “We want everyone’s views to be protected.”
Keith Whittington—Princeton’s William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics and founding chair of the Academic Freedom Alliance, which publicized the principles last month—endorsed the standards. But he said, “I know there are people out there I would have disagreements with about when the correct point of intervention has arrived.”
Whittington said he thinks the cure would likely be worse than the disease “if we see politicians and trustees become that activist about how to reform universities.”
Jennifer Ruth, co-author of two books on academic freedom and a former member of the American Association of University Professors’ academic freedom committee, said the Princeton Principles are “saying that faculty are not doing their job, and so governments, boards of trustees and etc. need to step in and reform.”
Ruth, a professor in Portland State University’s School of Film, criticized the principles for “starting from a premise that says things are off the rails.”
“If you really wanted to have some new principles to speak to this moment, they need to come out of Princeton faculty senate, not the James Madison Program,” she said.
“They’re trying to claim the nonpartisan ground, but they’re not using nonpartisan instruments,” she said. “Nonpartisan instruments are faculty senates, are shared governance—are what we already do.”
In an email, a Princeton University spokesperson wrote that “The ‘Princeton Principles’ are not endorsed or authored by Princeton University.”
The spokesperson pointed to Princeton’s own Statement on Freedom of Expression, which includes the Chicago principles.
“Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the university, [the university] fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the university community ‘to discuss any problem that presents itself,’” the Chicago principles say.
Downs and Whittington said they just went along with calling the Princeton Principles “the Princeton Principles.”
Robert George, director of Princeton’s James Madison Program and McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, said the group that developed the principles met at Princeton and the principles followed the naming convention of the Princeton Principles on Universal Jurisdiction.
Downs said George and the James Madison Program convened him and others, and he wrote the initial and subsequent drafts with input from the others.
The 15 “project participants and endorsers,” listed first among the 43 total endorsers, include Downs; George; Whittington; John Tomasi, president of Heterodox Academy, the nonprofit that says it’s responding to “the rise of orthodoxy within scholarly culture”; and Greg Lukianoff, president and chief executive officer of FIRE and co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind and The Canceling of the American Mind.
FIRE, a promoter of the Chicago principles, declined to comment on the Princeton Principles.
George said one of the purposes of discussing the new principles was to look at how the Chicago principles apply to issues that have arisen, or have come more into focus, in the years since the Chicago Statement was written.
Seeking Diverse Viewpoints
The Princeton Principles also say that because “attainment of truth requires the engagement of diverse viewpoints … departments and institutions should strive to be intellectually pluralistic in hiring, tenure, promotion and peer review.”
“Work should be judged by its intellectual and creative force, its provocation of vital debate and its potential to shed light on natural, social and cultural phenomena,” the principles say. “Institutions may rightly demand probative research, rigorous inquiry and logical relationship of explanation or theory to data, but they may not demand that someone share a particular ideological, theoretical or political commitment.”
The principles also say “government and private donors may fund programs devoted to fields of inquiry that they think would enhance intellectual diversity and therefore contribute to the vigor of inquiry on campus, provided they specify and justify intellectual or pedagogical reasons for the effort. Such efforts add to free inquiry rather than limiting it.”
Donors’ and legislatures’ establishment—successful or merely attempted—of conservative or conservative-sounding centers on university campuses has drawn criticism from faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and elsewhere.
Princeton’s James Madison Program, according to its website, “relies entirely on the financial support of private donors and foundations.”
George, the program’s director, said, “It’s not the easy questions that you need universities to delve into—it’s the hard ones.”
“You need freedom, yes, but you need different perspectives, and you need people advancing those perspectives,” he said. “Groupthink is no less antithetical to truth-seeking than the restriction of freedom is.”
George said he’s not in favor of affirmative action for conservatives, or higher or lower standards for any group. He said most discrimination cases are implicit, where people “were not sufficiently open-minded to be able to affirm the quality of really good, quality work—work that definitely met the standard, but which challenged their fundamental assumptions. This is not a progressive or liberal problem, it’s a human nature problem.”
The Princeton Principles also say people shouldn’t be able to “materially disrupt speakers,” that institutions shouldn’t compel “scholars and students to endorse or tacitly affirm any opinion that is not necessary for the basic academic functioning of the university,” and that instructors shouldn’t be discriminated against in hiring and other employment decisions for their “ideas expressed in extramural speech that would be protected in the public forum writ large, including criticism of institutional policies and actions.”
The AAUP has its own central statement, separate from either the Chicago or Princeton Principles: the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. It broadly defends academic freedom, but a footnote on the website version cites a separate 1964 statement and gives some caveats on “extramural utterances.”
“The controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position,” the footnote says. “Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for the position. Moreover, a final decision should take into account the faculty member’s entire record.”
The Princeton Principles say, “Faculty members and students engaging in extramural speech must make it evident that they speak for themselves, not as spokespersons for the institution.”
But the principles say the institutions themselves should limit their own speech.
“The institution and its units should speak out only about matters that clearly affect their normal operations and the intellectual freedom they must protect,” the principles say. “Taking stances on matters extraneous to the operations of the university, including on moral, political and constitutional or legal questions on which our society is divided, effectively establishes an orthodox view. This divides the campus into ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders,’ hindering further exploration of important issues.”
“Universities and their units should also refrain from publicly denouncing the research or extramural comments of members of the campus community with whom they disagree, lest they create official pariahs,” the principles say. “Members of the campus community in their individual capacities may publicly critique each other’s positions, so long as they make it clear that they speak for themselves.”
Whittington, the Princeton professor and Academic Freedom Alliance founding chair, said if “departments formally take positions on disputed political questions, it will necessarily pressure individual members of the department to fall in line with those opinions.” He said that could lead to faculty members not being hired.
PEN America, a free expression group, wrote in an email that it agrees with much of the Princeton Principles, but in some areas PEN has “taken an alternate and more nuanced approach.”
In its 2019 PEN America Principles, the group says, “Campus leaders must be free to speak in their own right, to assert and affirm their institutional values,” and “By acknowledging and addressing legitimate concerns regarding racism and bigotry in the context of free speech debates, universities can help ensure that the defense of freedom of expression is not misconstrued as a cause that is at odds with movements for social justice.”
Thomas Keck, a Syracuse University political science professor who teaches free speech courses, noted that society is currently divided over issues including whether humans are heating up the planet, whether presidents should give up power after losing an election and whether public health officials should be able to require vaccines against deadly diseases.
“There are some things on which particular units of faculty will, in fact, have consensus,” or close to it, Keck said. To say a department can’t issue collective statements, he said, “strikes me as raising academic freedom concerns.”
Keck said the Princeton Principles do improve on the Chicago principles, which don’t use the term “academic freedom.” But he said the Princeton Principles still seem to privilege free speech over academic freedom—he noted students’ free speech can conflict with, among other things, professors’ academic freedom to control classroom discussions.
“I think there’s room for further conversation and refinement about how to strike the optimal balance,” he said.