Editing Out Independent Thought At Princeton


Thomas Z. Horton Freelance Writer
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Media outlets often succumb to the temptation to frame college campus conflicts over free speech as political brawls between the ‘left’ and the ‘right’, ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’, or in its most violent strain,  ‘Antifa’ radicals and ‘Alt-Right’ thugs.  Underlying much of this, however, is a deeper clash:  illiberalism versus independent thought.  This clash is apparent in dramatic student protests and hecklers’ vetoes, but perhaps more sinister is its covert institutional manifestation.

Case in point: last Tuesday, the Editor-in-Chief of Princeton’s premier campus newspaper quietly announced the dissolution of the Daily Princetonian’s independent Editorial Board.  The EIC’s 250-word memo states that “after consulting with editors, staff, and the ‘Prince’ Board of Trustees, [‘Prince’ leadership] has decided to return to a more traditional [Editorial Board] model” by dismissing all current members and inviting applications to a new Board subject to the EIC and senior news editors.  Conspicuously missing was any motive for this abrupt decision.

Over the past five years, the independent ‘Prince’ Editorial Board has presented views often at odds with progressive orthodoxy.  It has repeatedly applauded University President Christopher Eisgruber’s strong affirmation of academic freedom and condemned student protests against free speech.  The Board took a stance against the push to purge the University of Woodrow Wilson’s name.  The Board unanimously criticized the University’s Women’s Center for its failure to serve women of diverse viewpoints, particularly those who don’t subscribe to the Center’s overwhelmingly pro-abortion, anti-abstinence messaging and programming.

These free-thinking views rubbed the newspaper’s leadership the wrong way.  Conflict privately came to a head when last year’s EIC, Do-Hyeong Myeong ’17, refused to publish a certain editorial until the Board of Trustees intervened and Editorial Board members threatened to resign in protest.  Now, at the start of the school year, the progressive new EIC, Sarah Sakha ’18, has publicly taken the opportunity to “revise” the independent Board out of existence, cravenly cloaking the ideologically driven decision in language about institutional process and procedure.

This decision is as unwise as it is troubling.  The independent Board attracted members with a diversity of perspectives, which culminated in strong editorials questioning prevailing campus attitudes and assumptions.  Abolishing the independent Board on account of its views sends a clear message that those who think differently are unwelcome.  Sakha says she hopes the new Board will “ensure that the institution’s voice is informed by students with a broad range of experiences and perspectives”.  But this hope is either futile or disingenuous.  After all, independent thinkers need not apply.

The independent Board, meanwhile, has not disbanded; it has gone into exile and intends to carry on the robust Princeton tradition of thoughtful campus discourse, publishing editorials – and views dissenting from the majority – on its new website.  This is heartening news, and such positively minded resilience should serve as a model for others whom illiberal inquisitors attempt to silence.  As the independent Board wrote in its inaugural editorial-from-exile, “As all those who try to enforce an ideology eventually find out, ideas cannot be suppressed.”

Thirteen years ago, the first independent Editorial Board Chair, Jonathan Williams ‘05, wrote in an article announcing the Board’s formation, “Orthodoxy is not the goal. Open debate – though it may be messy at times – is.”  Illiberal attempts to put guardrails on thought and to straightjacket debate are inimical to intellectually honest thinkers of all views – ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’.  So let everyone in the academic community who embraces the ‘messiness’ of unfettered debate – regardless of opinion – reaffirm this fundamental principle of pluralistic society: all who make their arguments in good faith are welcome here.  Here’s to hoping that ‘Prince’ leadership takes note and welcomes back the independent Board to continue enlivening open debate at Princeton.

Thomas Z. Horton, Princeton Class of 2015, was a member of the independent Daily Princetonian Editorial Board from 2012 through 2015.

Perspectives expressed in op-eds are not the views of The Daily Caller.