The Intersection of Free Expression and Inclusivity

This set of Frequently Asked Questions summarizes the University’s policies and practices related to the intersection of free expression, inclusivity, harassment and campus climate. In conjunction with its commitment to free and open inquiry on all matters, the University grants wide latitude to free expression (“free expression” and “free speech” are used interchangeably here), even when disagreeable or offensive. By allowing individuals this latitude to express their opinions – including through peaceful protests or demonstrations – the University makes it possible for everyone to advocate for their points of view and express dissent. All members of the campus community, including the University’s leadership, have the right to use their own speech to counter the speech of others.  

Free expression is most challenging when it is directed at others in ways they may find offensive. Because most forms of expression are protected even when viewed as “problematic,” the applicability of disciplinary systems is narrow. However, the University also greatly values inclusivity. It always responds to concerns about harmful expression in some way. It has many non-disciplinary resources and strategies to address harmful expression, to support those who have been affected, and to resolve conflict. 

What is the University’s position with respect to free speech and free expression?

The Princeton faculty adopted a Statement on Freedom of Expression in 2015, affirming the University's commitment to the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression as essential to the University's educational mission. The Statement on Freedom of Expression states in part:

Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. 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."

Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.

The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University.  But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas. 

Are free expression and inclusivity competing values?

We do not believe so.  As President Eisgruber recently wrote in a 2020 opinion piece in the Daily Princetonian:

 “[W]e are in an era when many people mistakenly treat free speech and inclusivity as competing values. Universities must nevertheless remain steadfastly devoted to both free speech and inclusivity. We need the benefit of multiple voices and perspectives, and we need real engagement among them…. Princeton has a strong policy protecting free speech. It applies very broadly, encompassing academic inquiry, peaceful protest, ordinary conversation, and online discussion. The University permits speech that is unpopular, provocative, controversial, wrong, or even deeply offensive…. But the fact that we have the right to insult one another does not mean that insulting people is the right thing to do. On the contrary, Princeton’s free speech principles also affirm that ‘all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect."

Does the First Amendment apply to Princeton?

While the First Amendment does not apply to private universities, the University’s Statement on Freedom of Expression provides that we should give free speech the "broadest possible latitude," which is consistent with First Amendment principles.

Do the University’s free expression principles apply only to spoken or written words?

No, they also extend to all expression whose purpose is to communicate ideas – such as works of art, raising a fist, T-shirt slogans, political buttons, theatrical performances, and the like. 

How does the University handle speech and expression that turns into action, for example, in connection with protests or demonstrations?

University policies provide for peaceful dissent, protests in peaceable assembly and orderly demonstrations. Thus, individuals may advocate strongly for their views, even when those views might be unpopular with or unwelcome to others in the community or to the University administration, so long as that speech and expression does not cross over into harassing behavior. When speech turns to action, there is an increased ability to regulate it, and in some instances, an obligation to do so. For example, while protesters have the right to assemble, chant, distribute literature, and engage in discussion and debate, they do not have the right to disrupt the regular and essential operations of the University or significantly infringe on the rights of others, particularly the right to listen to a speech or lecture. See the Policy on Protests, Demonstrations and Peaceful Dissent.

Under what circumstances will University invoke the disciplinary process for conduct that may implicate our free expression principles?

Under our Statement on Freedom of Expression, the University will consider disciplinary action for such conduct only in narrowly-defined situations.  As noted in the Statement on Freedom of Expression, speech and expression may be subject to discipline when it:  

  1. violates the law; 
  2. falsely defames a specific individual; 
  3. constitutes a genuine threat or harassment; 
  4. unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests; or 
  5. is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.  

Note that these categories are not mutually exclusive.  As well, some additional considerations apply in workplace contexts. 

Given that invoking the disciplinary process will often not be an appropriate response, what other actions does the University take to counteract speech and expression that some members of our community may find offensive?

The University is committed to maintaining an inclusive campus climate, and we recognize that problematic and unwelcome speech or expression can create distress and undermine campus and workplace morale.  Still, in light of our free expression principle, discipline often will not be the appropriate response to unpleasant or offensive speech.

The University always responds in some way to concerns about speech and expression that members of our community would reasonably understand as problematic, often by engaging in additional speech.  For example, the University may convene a meeting with a Dean, Director of Student Life, supervisor or other appropriate official to explain our concerns with the speech, how the speech conflicts with the values of our community, and the impact the speech is having on others.

The University also might offer supportive measures to those who might find certain speech problematic or distressing.  For example, the University offers conflict resolution resources such as mediation, restorative practices and/or informal resolution agreements (for example, in the context of Title IX/sexual misconduct) which can support individuals, student organizations, departments and affinity-based communities affected by speech-related incidents. In addition, the University may sponsor debates or discussions on the topic, or offer awareness programs and trainings to the campus community, in whole or in part.  Under certain circumstances, No Contact and No Communication Orders can be put in place between parties.

What is the Bias Prevention and Review Advisory Group and what role does it serve?

The Bias Prevention and Review Advisory Group members include representatives from the Offices of the Provost, Campus Life, Dean of the College, Dean of the Undergraduate Students, the Graduate School, Human Resources, Dean of the Faculty, Communications, Ombuds, and the Department of Public Safety. 

The Group serves as a coordinating network of bias reporting and support resources which reviews how the University handles reports of bias-related incidents, monitors reporting trends, and makes recommendations regarding the implementation of proactive prevention efforts, remedial measures, and community education to address bias.  This Group, as a body, does not investigate or adjudicate complaints or reports of bias, harassment, or discrimination.

What is the process for determining whether speech and associated conduct implicating our free expression principles violates University conduct policies?

The University uses its standard conduct policies and procedures for determining all violations of University policy, regardless of the nature of conduct at issue.  In many circumstances, the University will need to determine whether the conduct at issue satisfies the elements of the University’s definition of “harassment,” as defined by the Policy on Discrimination and/or Harassment.  

What is the role of “Respect for Others” (RRR 1.2.1) in the analysis of possible violations of University policy based on speech or expression?

The Policy on Discrimination and/or Harassment, rather than “Respect for Others,” is used as the basis for disciplining conduct involving protected characteristics and speech or expression.  

How do free expression principles apply in the educational context (e.g., classroom setting)?

In the educational context, the principle of academic freedom extends wide protections to a faculty member’s speech that is germane to the subject matter of the course and furthers a pedagogical purpose. These protections include the right to determine the curricular content of the course and appropriate teaching methods, and to discuss the subject matter in the context of the course. However, the faculty member’s right to academic freedom and free expression is not absolute to the point of compromising a student’s right to learn in a harassment-free environment. 
As stated in the Policy on the Classroom Learning Environment (Rules and Procedures of the Faculty V.I): 

Princeton University places a strong emphasis on its teaching mission. The classroom provides a distinctive space where knowledge is transmitted, ideas are debated, and argument flows freely in an atmosphere characterized by trust, openness, mutual respect, and a willingness to have one’s beliefs and arguments, whatever they may be, vigorously challenged…. Consistent with the University’s strong commitment to freedom of thought and expression, the critical examination of competing points of view should be encouraged. No point of view, including that of the instructor, should be treated as immune from challenge or criticism.

How do free expression principles apply in the work/employment context?

As Vice President for Human Resources Lianne Sullivan-Crowley wrote in a 2020 opinion piece in the Daily Princetonian:

“Consistent with its statement on freedom of expression, the University encourages and supports the free expression and exchange of ideas and views by all members of our community. That means that every staff member is free to engage on their own behalf and on their own time in discourse and advocacy on political or policy matters….  In keeping with University policy as well as federal law that regulates the University as a nonprofit organization, these activities must not interfere with the fulfillment of a staff member’s responsibilities to the University or be conducted at the expense of the University.  And staff, as well as faculty, must take special care to make it clear that they are speaking only for themselves and not for the University….  The University’s staff is made up of thousands of dedicated employees from all backgrounds, and their views on political and policy issues vary widely. In keeping with our values and the University’s informal motto, “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity,” we value and hold dear that employees speak out and dedicate their personal time and efforts to causes that are important to them.  Our approach protects the rights of all staff members to speak out on their own behalf on issues, while reserving the workplace for advancing the crucial research and teaching mission of the University.”

Why doesn’t the University make public any discipline or other measures it has instituted in these cases?

Legal requirements and our privacy policies often limit the ability of the University to share individual-specific information publicly.

If I experience offensive speech that is protected under the Policy on Freedom of Expression, what can I do?

The University recognizes that it may be unpleasant and/or stressful to be exposed to or targeted by speech that you find offensive. You have several options.

  • Problematic speech can always be countered with more speech. You have the right to make your own statements about your experiences or those whose speech has offended you (taking care not to violate other policies by engaging in harassment, threats, etc.).
  • You are also encouraged to report your concerns about speech you find problematic. Such reports can help the University consider whether to engage in its own speech, either with the speaker directly or by identifying opportunities to educate the campus community. We also want to know about such speech because it can also be a sign of a hostile environment or associated with problematic behavior. Contact the Director for Institutional Equity in the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity, clawson@princeton.edu, for guidance or additional information. 
  • You can take advantage of campus support and resources. These might include no contact or no communication orders, or access to mediation or restorative practices. Confidential resources are also available.
How can mediation, restorative practices and/or informal resolution address speech-related conflicts?

Mediation is a voluntary, confidential, and informal process that people in conflict use to address a common problem with the help of an impartial mediator who does not decide, but helps the parties reach their own solution. Mediation can also assist in repairing trust and morale within groups affected by the aftermath of an incident. The Ombuds Office provides neutral services such as mediation when parties agree to participate.

Restorative practices focus on creation of safe spaces, building trust, attending to trauma and resilience and setting community standards and norms. Such practices often involve conversation circles to address hostile campus climate and engage in risk assessment, safety planning, victim and survivor healing, and accountability. More than seventy campus administrators have received training in facilitating restorative practices. Contact the Office of Diversity and Inclusion-Campus Life for more information.

Informal resolution is a structured process used exclusively in matters involving complaints of sexual misconduct. See the Informal Resolution Process for more information.

How can I learn more about how free speech and inclusivity are supported on campus?

Many relevant resources, including policies and administrative statements, are available on the Freedom of Expression page contained within this section of our website.