Princeton University holds its 276th commencement May 30
Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber encouraged the 2023 graduating class to “let your voice rise” in order to protect two important values – free speech and equality.
“We must stand up and speak up together for the values of free expression and full inclusivity for people of all identities,” Eisgruber told the students and their families at the 276th commencement ceremony inside Princeton Stadium May 30.
These constitutional ideals are complementary of – and not in competition with – one another and there is a responsibility to protect them, Eisgruber said.
“To all of you who receive your undergraduate or graduate degree from Princeton University today, your help is urgently needed now,” he said.
“So, as you go forth from this university, let your voices rise. Let them rise for equality. Let them rise for the value of diversity. Let them rise for freedom, for justice and for love among the people of this earth.”
Eisgruber explained the connection between the landmark U.S. Supreme Court free speech case of New York Times versus Sullivan and the civil rights work of the late entertainer Harry Belafonte.
Belafonte was one of the principal fundraisers for Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights campaigns and he received an honorary degree from Princeton University in 2015 for his social activism and humanitarian work.
During the 1960s, Belafonte had a leadership role in the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1964 ruling centered on a newspaper advertisement funded by the committee.
“The Supreme Court thereby, suddenly and in a single decision, created one of the most speech-protective legal doctrines in history, and for that matter, in the world today,” Eisgruber said.
“When people talk about free speech rights in America, they often depict them as the legacy of the American founding in the 18th century, or as the product of elegant dissents authored by Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis in the early 20th century,” he said.
“Without meaning any disrespect to the Constitution’s framers or to those legendary justices, this much is clear. The expansive, legally enforceable free speech rights that Americans cherish today first emerged in the 1960s during and because of the fight for racial justice in the South, a fight whose leaders included Black student activists,” he said.
Shifting to present day, Eisgruber expressed his deep concern over efforts “to drive a wedge between the constitutional ideals of equality and free speech.”
“There are people who claim, for example, that when colleges and universities endorse the value of diversity and inclusivity or teach about racism and sexism, they are ‘indoctrinating students’ or in some other way endangering free speech,” Eisgruber said. “That is wrong.
“Wherever your individual journeys lead you in the years ahead, I hope that you also continue to travel together, as classmates and as alumni of this university, in pursuit of a better world,” he continued.
“All of us on this platform have great confidence in your ability to take on the challenge. We applaud your persistence, your talent, your achievements, your values and your aspirations.”
Valedictorian Aleksa Milojevic, who grew up in Belgrade, Serbia, echoed Eisgruber’s theme of active involvement.
Milojevic spoke of how he and his peers had been actively nurtured by the full Princeton community. He reminded them to practice active appreciation themselves, both of others and of the everyday wonders in their lives.
“Whether it’s actively enjoying campus or actively loving our community, I believe active engagement was central to my Princeton experience and I suspect many of you feel the same,” he said.
“Even academically and professionally, I believe it is important to enjoy what we are doing, as we are doing it. As you carve your future, I hope you will actively love those around you, as the people on this campus loved us,” said Milojevic who earned a degree in mathematics.
Annabelle Duval, a history major from Rhinebeck N.Y., delivered the traditional Latin salutatory address, tracing the Class of 2023’s undergraduate career – from the challenges of remote learning during the pandemic to the joys of celebrating the men’s and women’s basketball teams during March Madness.
“This chaotic time we will remember for countless years. Friends, let us always preserve these dear friendships, formed by many nights in Firestone Library, and may the spirit of the tiger always be with us,” Duval said.