Fighting against the rising fear of offending at American universities

By Jennie Matthew, AFP

PRINCETON, New Jersey–Josh Freeman is an athlete and engineering student at one of America’s most elite universities. But between track and studying he’s 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 U.S. 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 told AFP. Across the United States, university campuses have been roiled by protests from minority students accusing college authorities of disrespect, demanding boycotts, resignations and name changes. At Princeton, 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of New York, there is a campaign to strip the name of Wilson from its prestigious school of public and international affairs, a residential complex and a mural. Wilson is best known abroad as the man who brought the United States into World War I, tipping the balance in favor of the Allies and for sponsoring the precursor of the United Nations. But at home, 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. ‘Open discussion’

“Princeton must do better. We must commit ourselves to make this University a place where students from all backgrounds feel respected and valued,” said university president Christopher Eisgruber. But 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 asked. “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?” The U.S. campus protests about race are rooted in the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement sparked by police shootings of unarmed black suspects.