Josh Freeman is an athlete and engineering student at one of the most elite universities in the US, but between track and studying he is campaigning for the right to say what he thinks.
When the 20-year-old sophomore criticized protesters demanding that Princeton strip the name of former US president Woodrow Wilson from campus because of his racist views, he was slandered.
“If you’re a white person, they’d be like you’re white, you’re racist... and if you’re African American and disagree with them like I did, you’re hinted at being a traitor for not standing with them, which should not be the case at all,” he said.
Across the US, university campuses have been roiled by protests from minority students accusing college authorities of disrespect, demanding boycotts, resignations and name changes.
At Princeton, 80km southwest of New York, there is a campaign to strip the name of Wilson from its school of public and international affairs, a residential complex and a mural.
Wilson is best known internationally as the man who brought the US into World War I, tipping the balance in favor of the Western allies and for sponsoring the precursor of the UN, the League of Nations.
However, in the US many remember his virulent racism against African Americans.
Last month, students from the Black Justice League held a 32-hour sit-in to demand Wilson’s name be removed from campus — a call backed by an editorial in the New York Times.
The university has asked its Board of Trustees to address the matter, with a special committee formed this week to review Wilson’s legacy.
“Princeton must do better. We must commit ourselves to make this university a place where students from all backgrounds feel respected and valued,” university president Christopher Eisgruber said.
However, Freeman does not believe censoring Wilson’s name is the right answer.
He is part of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, set up last month by students from a mix of ethnic backgrounds to protect diversity of thought.
Freeman argues that by enrolling at Princeton, students are acknowledging its past — good and bad.
“The leaders that we look up to and admire, they all had their flaws, so are we just going to stop naming everything after these great leaders?” Freeman said.
“Or do we name things after them and have an open discussion about their flaws, how we can move forward and learn from them and become better?” he said.
The US campus protests about race are rooted in the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement sparked by police shootings of unarmed black suspects, but academics said they also reflect a wider tussle over free speech in US universities, where many said the constant fear of causing offense has fueled a creeping form of censorship.
Last month, Yale University advised students not to don Halloween costumes — such as turbans or feathered headdresses — that could be deemed hurtful to minorities.
Academics who questioned the advice are now facing a hate campaign on campus.
Faculty members across the US are being asked to ascribe so-called “trigger warnings” to elements of the syllabus that might prove upsetting to their students.
At Brown University, another US Ivy League school, students set up a temporary “safe space” with coloring books, Play-Doh and blankets to help students cope with a debate about sexual assault.
US law professors complain that students take offense at being taught about rape and abortion sparking accusations of discrimination and sexual harassment.
The issue has reached such proportions that some criminal law professors no longer cover the topic of rape at all, Harvard University law professor Jeannie Suk said.
Decades after bra-burning feminists fought for equality and activists for civil rights, anything seen as undermining a rigorous equality of treatment between students has become a new taboo, in a trend being mimicked in the UK.
New York Law School professor and American Civil Liberties Union former president Nadine Strossen said that freedom of speech is perpetually under threat in places of higher learning.
During the Cold War, top-down university censorship targeted anything seen as supporting the bete noire of communism.
What is new, she said, is that it is now coming from “the students themselves and with aid from the [US] federal government.”
Under US President Barack Obama, the department of education’s office of civil rights has extended the definition of sexual harassment to include speech with any sexual content — something that violates freedom of speech, Strossen said.
Suk, like many academics, struggles to explain the greater propensity of today’s students to take offense. She said it could be linked to their upbringing.
“College professors report that parents call when they’re unhappy with their children’s grades,” she wrote in an e-mail.
She cited anecdotal evidence of a company boss getting calls from parents of his 20-something employees when things go wrong for them at work.
Others point towards the increasingly business-like nature of US universities — focused on turning a profit and obliged to heed the every concern of student-consumers, who pay tens of thousands of US dollars for a university education.
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