Zero Tolerance at Princeton University

Princeton University confiscated nearly 400 T-shirts valued at about $2,000 from students who had prepared them for sale in connection with Newman’s Day. That’s a day during which some students play a drinking game that promotes excessive consumption of alcohol. One of the shirts had the slogan, “If found, please return to McCosh Heath (sic) Center.” 1

Kathleen Deignan, Dean of Undergraduate Students, said the shirts were confiscated because “they were advertising a very dangerous drinking game that the University has been clear it does not support.” The University alcohol policy prohibits drinking games and Deignan called it a “reasonable extrapolation of the rules” to extend it to anything that “advertises and promotes drinking games.” 2

The Princeton administrator said “this was entirely a safety matter, and I acted in the interest of campus safety, ” but senior Seth Hahn said the administration was misguided if it believed that confiscating clothing would deter students from drinking. 3 And a faculty member sees the matter as a violation of students’ constitutional right to free speech.

Computer science professor Andrew Appel promptly introduced a faculty resolution condemning the action. It states in part that “censorship of speech is repugnant to academic values. T-shirts bearing messages are a well-recognized form of speech in our society.” 4

“This is just censorship of speech, and the University, especially as an academic community that values academic freedom, should not be censoring speech,” said Dr. Appel. “The confiscation of printed materials before they can be distributed constitutes prior restraint which is a very severe form of censorship” 5 He emphasized that “Prior restraint of a publication (the T-shirts) is really antithetical to the academic values of a university.” 6

Ms. Deignan stands by her decision . 7

It’s important to discourage drinking games, but not by violating constitutional rights. Both effective and completely legal would be implementing a social norms marketing program at Princeton.

 

References:

  1. Stern, Robert. Princeton drinking T-shirts seized. NJ.com, 4-28-04.
  2. Gao, Melisa. 400 t-shirts confiscated in Public safety bust. Daily Princetonian, 4-26-04. In making this extrapolation, Deignan violates a fundamental distinction between speech and behavior. Speech promoting a behavior is protected although the behavior itself may be in violation of rules, regulation or laws. Deignan is also incorrect in asserting that the shirts advertise an event. Actually, they only carry slogans. They never mention Newman’s Day, any date, time place, product or service. They clearly advertise nothing.
  3. Stern, Robert. Princeton drinking T-shirts seized. NJ.com, 4-28-04.
  4. Brodie, Josh. Appel condemns seizure of Newman’s Day shirts. Daily Princetonian, 4-27-04.
  5. Brodie, Josh. Appel condemns seizure of Newman’s Day shirts. Daily Princetonian, 4-27-04.
  6. Stern, Robert. Princeton drinking T-shirts seized. NJ.com, 4-28-04.
  7. Gao, Melisa. 400 t-shirts confiscated in Public safety bust. Daily Princetonian, 4-26-04.

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