I got involved in journalism and Princeton told me not to communicate

Princeton, NJ

You’ve read stories in these pages about campus censorship, hostility toward pro-Israel Jews, and the excesses of Title IX sexual misconduct rules. I have one that combines all three – and an attack on freedom of the press to boot.

In March, my college’s director of student life, Momo Wolapaye, told me by phone that another student felt “pissed off” by me and had “requested an order without communication.” In a letter that served as an official notice from the NCO, he stated that “neither you nor Harshini Abbaraju ’22 shall have any communication with each other in person or through any other party, by telephone, letter, e-mail or other electronic media, or in any other way, including via social media.”

Mr. Wolapaye’s letter said I was not 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 upon request, “for any reason and no reason.” For more information, the letter directed me to the “Sexual Abuse and Title IX” section of Princeton’s website.

I hardly knew Ms. Abbaraju (who has since graduated); my only meeting 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 protest by the Princeton Committee on Palestine on February 22 against the Israel Summer Programs Fair hosted by the Center for Jewish Life, a pastor and focal point of Jewish activity on campus.

I covered that event for Tory and followed up with an email to Ms. Abbaraju to clarify and confirm quotes I had recorded. While she disagreed on some points regarding context, she remained cordial throughout our exchange and never indicated that she felt threatened or wanted to end our conversation. But two days after the article was published, Mr. The Wolapaye NCO letter which was also delivered to the campus police and senior associate dean of undergraduate students. I felt upset and trapped.

The terms of the NCO were unclear about my future journalistic activities on campus, and Mr. Wolapaye’s advice further confused matters. “You have the right to write,” he assured me on the phone. “If she’s part of a group and she’s speaking out and you’re talking about a statement, I think that should be fine. But not necessarily to edit her directly or her comments.”

What was clear was that the order prohibited me from doing my due diligence as a reporter – which is all I had 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 violated the no-communication order because you communicated with her,” said Mr. Wolapaye said. “Because that’s what is written in the order banning communication – that she has 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 do not want to talk to you.”

Over the next month, Mr. Wolapaye three follow-up emails. I started contacting deans and finally arranged a meeting with Joyce Chen Shueh, senior associate dean of undergraduate students. The NCO was revoked on April 28 – almost two months after it was issued and less than a month before Abbaraju’s graduation day. During that time, she was free to organize protests, but the university restricted my ability to report on them.

I told Ms. Shueh that I believed that issuing a non-commissioned officer under these circumstances violated Princeton’s commitment to the Chicago Principles, which provide that while “the University may limit expression that . . . constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, . . . . It is of critical importance that these exemptions are never used in a way 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-evaluate the procedures for assigning non-commissioned officers. But the only change made was to move the “frequently asked questions” page about such orders from the “Sexual Misconduct” section of the Princeton website to the more general section dealing with “Dispute Resolution.” The latter section contains a statement that “The University expects its members to first employ honest, direct and civil dialogue as a means of resolving conflicts” – but the implication of the move is that NCOs are a legitimate response to anyone conflict, whether or not it involves genuine harassment.

Although the website assures students that NCOs are not “punitive,” they are burdensome to 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 service.” Imposing these restrictions requires not so much as a charge of wrongdoing, much less proof. Princeton has turned a shield against harassment into a sword against the press.

Mrs. Shapiro is a sophomore at Princeton.

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