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‘Speak Freely,’ except on fossil fuel divestment

Upon matriculating at Princeton, I received two things in the mail: the classic black Princeton t-shirt and a copy of the pre-read, “Speak Freely.” I wasn’t the only one: the entire student body was encouraged to read the book. That’s how seriously the University takes freedom of speech — at least on the surface.

Nassau Hall urges students and faculty to ‘speak freely’ both in and out of the classroom. Over the summer, we saw Vice President for Campus Life Rochelle Calhoun and President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 defend students and staff’s freedom to use racial slurs. Last month, President Eisgruber reaffirmed that stance.

Time and again, University officials have defended the right to free speech on Princeton’s campus. Even so, free speech isn’t equal at Princeton, especially when it comes to issues deemed political or controversial.

For months now, I have worked on Divest Princeton’s campaign for fossil fuel divestment. As I have spoken with University employees, some staff have expressed support for the movement, but declined to publicly endorse our campaign, for fear of their position and reputation. I began to wonder: how can the University promote free expression when staff members feel unable to speak out?

Since some members of the University community indicated they could not speak freely, I hoped to use my platform to share their stories. And so, with the support of the Princeton Environmental Activism Coalition (of which I am a member), I surveyed staff on their perception of free speech at the University. We reached out to 190 staff, administrators, and research associates from 18 different offices, centers, and residential colleges, ranging from the High Meadows Environmental Institute to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Pace Center for Civic Engagement.

Our survey was anonymous and asked for opinions on fossil fuel divestment and climate change, as well as whether the respondent had experienced free-speech constraints at the University. Most yes-no questions included a free-response option. We hoped to reach as representative a sample as possible, while preserving anonymity.

In total, 24 staff members, administrators, and researchers responded to our survey, of which 58.3 percent expressed support for Princeton’s divestment from fossil fuels and 20.8 percent expressed opposition. The remaining 20.9 percent expressed ambivalence or reported needing more information to decide.

Abby Nishiwaki / The Daily Princetonian

Most importantly, many of the respondents expressed being unable to freely and openly express their personal views on divestment, despite their vested interest in sustainability and climate change.  Just 27.3 percent of staff members responded “Yes” to the…

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2020-11-25 17:43:00

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