The university transforms a shield against sexual harassment into a sword against the student press.
by Danielle Shapiro, The Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2022
You’ve read stories on these pages about campus censorship, hostility toward pro-Israel Jews and the excesses of Title IX regulations regarding sexual misconduct. I have one that combines all three—and an attack on press freedom to boot.
In March, my college’s director of student life, Momo Wolapaye, told me by phone that another student felt “distressed” by me and had “requested a no-communication order.” In a letter that served as official notice of the NCO, he declared that “neither you nor Harshini Abbaraju ’22 may have any communication with each other in person or through another party, by telephone, letter, e-mail, or other electronic media, or by any other means, including via social media.”
Mr. Wolapaye’s letter said I wasn’t accused of violating any university policy but threatened me with “disciplinary consequences” if I failed to comply with the order. He said in our phone conversation (which I recorded) that the university’s policy is to issue such orders on request, “for any reason and no reason.” For more information, the letter directed me to the “Sexual Misconduct & Title IX” section of Princeton’s website.
I hardly knew Ms. Abbaraju (who has since graduated); my only encounter with her had been professional. I worked as a reporter for the Princeton Tory, an independent student-run magazine, and she was among the organizers of a Feb. 22 protest by the Princeton Committee on Palestine against the Israel Summer Programs Fair hosted by the Center for Jewish Life, a chaplaincy and hub of Jewish activity on campus.
I covered that event for the Tory and followed up with an email to Ms. Abbaraju to clarify and confirm quotes I had recorded. While she disagreed on some points concerning context, she remained cordial throughout our exchange and never indicated that she felt threatened or wished to terminate our conversation. But two days after the article’s publication, Mr. Wolapaye sent the NCO letter, which was also delivered to campus police and the senior associate dean of undergraduate students. I felt mortified and trapped.
The terms of the NCO were unclear about my future journalistic activities on campus, and Mr. Wolapaye’s advice confused matters further. “You do have a right to write,” he assured me on the phone. “If she is a part of a group and she’s making a statement and you talk about a statement, I think that should be OK. But not necessarily to editorialize her directly or her comments.”
What was unambiguous was that the order prohibited me from doing my due diligence as a reporter—which is all I’d done to provoke it. “I don’t want you to be in a situation where you send her an email or you see her and ask her a question and she reports that you’ve violated the no-communication order because you’ve communicated with her,” Mr. Wolapaye said. “Because that’s what the no-communication order says—that she’s basically said, I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to hear from you. So please don’t talk to me. I won’t talk to you.”
Over the next month, Mr. Wolapaye ignored three follow-up emails. I began contacting deans and finally arranged a meeting with Joyce Chen Shueh, the senior associate dean of undergraduate students. The NCO was lifted on April 28—nearly two months after it was issued, and less than a month before Ms. Abbaraju’s graduation day. During that time, she was free to organize protests, but the university restrained my ability to report on them.
I told Ms. Shueh I believed that issuing an NCO under these circumstances violated Princeton’s commitment to the Chicago Principles, which provide that while “the University may restrict expression that . . . constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, . . . it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.”
She acknowledged the point and promised to re-examine the procedures for granting NCOs. But the only change made was to move the “frequently asked questions” webpage about such orders from the “Sexual Misconduct” section of the Princeton site to the more general section dealing with “Conflict Resolution.” The latter section includes a statement that “the University expects its members first to employ honest, direct and civil dialogue as a means of resolving conflict”—but the implication of the move is that NCOs are a legitimate response to any conflict, whether or not it involves genuine harassment.
Although the website assures students that NCOs aren’t “punitive,” they are burdensome for the targeted student. The FAQ defines “contact” to include “studying in the same section/floor of the library as the other party” and “standing next to the other party in line at a food servery.” Imposing these restrictions doesn’t require so much as an accusation of wrongdoing, much less proof. Princeton has transformed a shield against harassment into a sword against the press.