Free Speech on College Campuses - and Seminaries
The New Battle of Princeton

John Stonestreet
March 29, 2017
Reproduced with Permission

Intellectual intolerance is such a plague on American universities that both conservative and liberal academics are speaking out. Even together.

Few if any places in America pack more history per square mile than Princeton, New Jersey. Located halfway between New York and Philadelphia, Princeton has counted among its residents the likes of Jonathan Edwards, James Madison, Woodrow Wilson, and Albert Einstein, to name just a few.

It's also been the site for some of the most important battles in American history. The Battles of Princeton and nearby Trenton in the winter of 1776-'77 convinced the American colonies that they could win the War of Independence.

Now, another important battle is being fought in Princeton: the battle for free speech.

This past decade has seen a rise of intellectually-suffocating intolerance on college campuses. Students have learned, mostly from some of their professors, to silence those with opposing views rather than debate them.

In extreme cases, this has taken the form of intimidation and even violence, as was the case with Charles Murray's experience at Middlebury College. A group of about 100 students not only disrupted the proceedings, some physically attacked Murray and his host, and even followed them to a restaurant.

A more subtle, yet still insidious example was what happened to Tim Keller, the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Earlier this year, Princeton Theological Seminary named Keller the winner of the 2017 Kuyper Award for Excellence in Reformed Theology.

And then, all heck broke loose. People complained that, as a pastor in the more conservative Presbyterian Church in America, Keller didn't hew to mainstream Presbyterian orthodoxy on subjects such as women's ordination and, especially, LGBT issues.

In a textbook example of Orwellian double-speak, the school's dean issued a statement that withdrew Keller's award, while insisting that, "We are a community that does not silence voices in the church." Now technically that's true: Keller will still speak, but as the statement makes clear, he won't be speaking about anything that might distress his audience.

But I'm pleased to report that not all of the news coming out of Princeton is this bad. In response to this wave of intolerance, very conservative professor Robby George and very liberal professor Cornel West, whom Inside Higher Ed called "an ideological odd couple," issued a joint statement last week entitled "Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression."

In it, they point out that "It is all too common these days for people to try to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities." While acknowledging the right to peaceful protest, they ask readers to consider whether it might "not be better to listen respectfully and try to learn from a speaker with whom I disagree? Might it better serve the cause of truth seeking to engage the speaker in frank civil discussion?"

George and West insist that everyone "should be willing - even eager - to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence and making arguments."

George and West aren't the only "odd couple" who've enlisted in the Battle of Princeton. Among the oddly paired signatories are the controversial, to put it mildly, ethicist Peter Singer, and pro-life legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School.

And I signed it too because, like its authors, I'm troubled by our age of ideological bubbles, "trigger warnings," and "safe spaces," especially on college campus. Not only should we respectfully hear out those who disagree with us, we might also learn from them. And vice-versa.

Perhaps this latest Battle of Princeton will be as momentous as the first one.