Monday, December 8, 2008

Thoughts on the USG referenda

by Molly Borowitz

With the passing of the Proposition 8 in November and the subsequent accusation that Princeton students are apathetic, politically uninvolved, and unoptimistic about their ability to "make a difference" (see the Daily Prince article from 19 November, "Proposition 8 stirs little public outcry at University"), Princeton's undergraduate community has landed itself in a situation uniquely parallel to that experienced by the citizens of California. We have the opportunity this week to vote on two crucial issues: (1) taking a unified stance as students on the issues contained in Prop 8, and (2) asking the University to represent that stance publicly.

Referendum 1a asks students to state whether or not they as a community "believe that the government of the United States and of the several states therein should, without delay, begin to afford same-sex partners the same rights and privileges they do to partners of a different sex vis-à-vis those that flow from the recognition of a marriage." In some ways, this referendum is the most important on the ballot, because regardless of whether the student body decides to ask the trustees to file an amicus brief or not, we're going to have taken a definitive—and publishable—stance on the way Princeton's undergraduate community feels toward same-sex marriage, and you'd better believe the results are gonna show up in the press. As you vote, it might be worth taking a moment to consider which response you think best represents the interests of our community and protects the beliefs and lifestyles of the most students on this campus. To my mind, that could be either response, depending on who you know best—but it's worth remembering that the referendum isn't asking what YOU believe. It's asking what we as a student body believe.

Three quick points about Referendum 1b; what bothers me about this section is that its language doesn't follow logically from 1a: "The USG shall ask the trustees of Princeton University to file an amicus brief on behalf of the Undergraduate student body with the Supreme Court of California, in support of that court's overturning California's 'Proposition 8' on the grounds that it is an instance of intolerable discrimination under the law." It is conceivable (although extremely unlikely) that if enough people vote NO on 1a and YES on 1b, we'll end up submitting an amicus brief to the California Supreme Court even after having declared that we as a student body don't necessarily believe in the immediate necessity for recognition of same-sex marriage.

Importantly, 1b differs from 1a in that it asks students to vote based on their individual opinions, not on their perceptions of the collective. Hence, there is no need to locate yourself within the larger community when voting on this section—do you think the University should issue a public statement against Prop 8? What I like about 1b is that it allows for some flexibility between declaring a student-body belief and announcing that belief on a national stage. If, for instance, you think the University community favors universal legalization of same-sex marriage but you regard the issuing of a public statement against Proposition 8 as problematic, unethical, exclusive, or maybe just unnecessary, you can convey those attitudes when voting. You could also vote the opposite—that the student body as a whole does not believe in the necessity of legalizing same-sex marriage, but that the University should issue a statement nonetheless.

The Equality Action Network's two referenda are opposed by a single paragraph composed by the Coalition for Intellectual Liberty, a group that includes Anscombe, the College Republicans, the Tory, and supporting individuals. Referendum 2, although in direct opposition to the suggestion proposed in 1b, addresses the much larger question of whether the University ever ought to make public declarations of opinion on behalf of its students. The CIL argues that "it would undermine the integrity of the community's intellectual freedom for the University itself to officially take sides on profound questions about which its members reasonably disagree, causing those members who dissent from the 'official' positions adopted by the University to be labeled as 'outsiders' rather than full members of the community." Since Princeton's role as a leading intellectual institution is to provide a safe forum for discussion, taking any kind of public position would threaten the university's ability to fulfill its purpose, making immediate "outsiders" of the students who disagree with its official stance. How big of a problem will it be to issue a public statement? Will people feel ostracized if they disagree with the University? The CIL doesn't want the University to create "a false impression of consensus" because—and we at Equal Writes certainly know this to be true—there is an impressive variety of opinions on this campus. I think this is a really valid concern (and I'm not just saying that), but I would also like to raise two small points.

Firstly, Referendum 2 urges Princeton's "officials and trustees to refrain from creating a false impression of consensus, or imposing on those holding minority positions, by associating the University with particular points of view on disputed questions of morality, law, and policy." This language does not make clear whether these disputed moral, legal, and policy questions are internal or external to the University (or both). Hence, this referendum could be interpreted as urging officials and trustees not to make public statements about University policies (maybe stuff like increasing the size of the student body, getting rid of early decision, or re-implementing the four-year college system). Of course, Sometimes we wish the University wouldn't issue policy statements on our behalf without asking us first (for instance, the annexing of Spelman to Whitman), but to restrict its ability to make them ever seems problematic. I suspect that the CIL did not intend for this "internal" scope to come into play, but the lack of clarification is potentially confusing.

Secondly, depending on how students vote on 1a, the question of a "public statement" becomes moot in a certain sense. Obviously the University's public support for a student opinion that stands in opposition to a legislative decision made 3,000 miles away would create a bigger splash on the national stage. At the same time, the fact that the majority of Princeton students voted in support of OR against the universal legalization of same-sex marriage is going to do a lot on its own. Whichever way we vote on 1a, people are gonna hear about it—and the majority opinion is going to be the one people associate with Princeton for some time to come, regardless of whether the University "officially" supports it or not.

With all this in mind, I think students on both sides of the fence can agree that the University has an obligation to accurately represent the interests and opinions of its students. But the faculty, administrators, and trustees will only be able to represent us effectively if we tell them what we think. However you feel about these issues, please remember that the very best way to express your opinions is to VOTE!


At December 8, 2008 at 6:54 PM , Anonymous christina said...

To clarify to your first concern about Referendum 2--that the referendum will affect the University's ability to make internal policies: you are correct in suspecting that the C-FIL did not intend to include internal policies in the scope of the referendum, and I don't really think the language implies that internal policies are included. When you read the referendum as a whole (or at least when I do), the context conveys that the referendum is addressing the University's response to external questions of morality, law, and policy. Questions of intellectual freedom, which is the focus of the referendum, don't usually come up when dealing with interal University policies, like what health services to provide or what buildings to annex to which colleges. If the C-FIL had meant to include internal policy in the scope of the referendum, the text of the referendum would explicitly say so.

At December 8, 2008 at 10:31 PM , Blogger Roscoe said...

I agree that perhaps the last referendum was worded too generally or perhaps too quickly. Nonetheless, the far scarier referendum is the the second one. Granted, the students can vote whichever way they want on the issue of gay rights, but that doesn't mean the university has any reason to get involved.

How would you like it if I got a majority of the student body to pass a referendum that asks the faculty to file an amicus brief against prop 4 (abortion prop)? And being the president of pro-life here at Princeton, I have ample desire and much more "civil rights" claim to do so. Not so fun now haw? It's awful that the only way for people to condemn a majority vote oppressing the minority is to have the same phenomena happen here at school...

At December 9, 2008 at 12:41 AM , Anonymous Molly Borowitz said...

Are you asking me specifically how I would like it, or just left-leaning people in general?

I think abortion is a different issue in that it's not restricting the rights of a pre-existing and politically active minority. As a pro-lifer, you believe that a one-day-old fetus has the same political rights as a thirty-year-old gay Californian, but not everyone agrees with you.

I agree with you entirely that the University doesn't necessarily have any reason to get involved. It's also worth mentioning that the University probably doesn't think so, either -- even if the referendum passes, there's no guarantee that the Board of Trustees will approve the measure. This amicus brief may go absolutely nowhere.

I'm not sure I agree with your assertion that you have more "civil rights" claim than anyone else at this University, or, for that matter, in this country. All citizens who are eighteen years old and registered to vote have equal civil rights claim in my book.


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