I have been involved with the Student Bill of Rights from its inception to its present state – and I am proud of this document. I am partly enthused and partly saddened by the controversy over the bill, although it must be clarified that the College Republican leadership expected controversy from the very beginning. I am enthused because a debate has now earnestly begun on this campus regarding the role of politics and bias in the classroom. The debate itself has been a fundamental goal of the Republicans from the earliest stages. No one can deny that, as we argue over the Student Bill of Rights, we come closer to understanding our own beliefs and understanding exactly why we believe what we do. Hopefully, if one reads the document, we can come closer to more enlightened debate.
As I gathered signatures for this bill over the course of two days, I noticed a dramatic shift between the first day when I could hand the document to someone, ask that they read it, explain anything they wished to know and why I thought it was important (that person would almost inevitably enthusiastically support the bill). On the second day, everyone knew only one thing about the document: that the College Republicans wrote it. While the extra effort necessary was often stimulating, many would not even look at the document. I asked one student to read it. He did and proceeded to explain that he would not sign it. I asked with what clauses he disagreed. “None,” he said, “but I’m a Democrat.” How can one help but feel that a debate needs to begin among such closed-mindedness? How disheartening!
I could not believe, as I debated people, how many justified their disagreement only in these terms. So, I should clarify: this Student Bill of Rights was written for Princetonians, not for Republicans. It supports the rights of all groups. The Student Bill of Rights is a document that seeks to project the principles that each of its students holds, those of free speech and open debate.
Then what do the opponents of the Student Bill of Rights claim? Most commonly, they assert that the Student Bill of Rights is a conservative document, controlled by David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights movement. This is essentially identical to the tactics that liberals bemoaned when conservatives would attempt to derail ideological movements because someone like Michael Moore expressed interest in the cause. Yes, we share some of the same values as Horowitz, as does almost everyone; but we have rejected his tactics, we have written a completely independent document and we have separated ourselves from his movement. Many Republicans on campus have expressed sympathy toward his views, but the Student Bill of Rights shares only one characteristic in common with his expanded Bill: principle. We believe that students should not be graded on their political or religious beliefs and we believe in free speech. The Student Bill of Rights, however, has no punitive mechanism. Professors cannot be punished by the USG, under whose name the Bill will be passed, nor will student organizations. So, the Student Bill of Rights is precisely what it claims: an assertion of principle.
I developed the habit of asking students to point out precisely with which passage they disagreed. Most opponents could not justify their opposition. Several, however, pointed to Republican bias in each passage. They would claim the second clause denies the legitimacy of grading based on the belief spawned by Republican fears that liberal professors will punish them. Is not the idea of “intellectual pluralism” founded in the idea that Republicans are under-represented on liberal campuses? So, is not this document written to benefit the College Republicans? Yes, we do consider it to our benefit. I will not deny that when I attended a politics lecture the day after the Presidential election in 2004, the declaration that the night before was a “tragedy” certainly limited my options for upcoming paper topics. The Student Bill of Rights would discourage such academic bias – but it would also discourage it if Princeton suddenly gained a conservative majority among professors. Every aspect of this bill can benefit conservatives and liberals equally. It is designed to protect those with controversial views, to protect free speech and open discourse. The USG, who would pass and act under this document, would have no desire for, no justification for, no intention of wielding the Student Bill of Rights unequally. Indeed, the USG could neither punish professors for what they say or students for what they do.
So, the question arises, what is the point?
This is a matter of principle. We believe that the assertion of principle, in this case of basic freedom, is important in itself and the Student Bill of Rights is important in a time in which so many feel so uncertain about their rights. But there are practical purposes for the Student Bill of Rights as well. At the moment, there is no assertion of student rights in the USG. The closest thing Princeton students have to such an assertion is the Rights, Rules and Responsibilities; but this document is controlled solely by the administration, outside the sphere of control of the student body. The Student Bill of Rights will be the first declaration of our rights as a student body. With the assertion of these rights, any administrator finds a much more awkward position when opposing freedom of speech, in opposing the essential rights of any student. Both Democrats and Republicans are protected by this, as are all religions and races.
Also, we believe that Princetonians can be trusted. If the failures to protect academic freedom are illuminated by the Student Bill of Rights, students, administrators and professors will consciously attempt to curb such practices. If the student body can assert their rights, those rights will be respected. So we can see change without punitive structures, we can see the extension of student rights without the persecution of any ideology. The College Republicans have constantly repeated that this movement is not intended as a witch hunt. We have gone out of our way not to point fingers, either at liberal or conservative professors at one side over the other. We have not mentioned names because recognition of past wrongs is not the goal of the Student Bill of Rights, but rather the continual blossoming of student rights in the future. We even invited other political groups to join us. We have made this a bipartisan effort from the very beginning and will remain true to that stance through the Spring election.
This document is honest, straightforward and easily accessible. Anyone can read it. All the College Republicans ask is that students determine for themselves what they see in this document. Read the Student Bill of Rights. Think about it. Debate the issue with friends, professors, political opponents. Support it or reject it. But know why you support or reject it. My challenge still stands: do you actually disagree with anything in the Student Bill of Rights?
If you do disagree with anything in the Student Bill of Rights, the elaboration of the belief in freedom of speech and open debate, the College Republicans feel they have more convincing to do, for those principles should never be denied.