Planet Princeton

Talk at Princeton High About Digital Privacy Takes a Controversial Turn, Principal Apologizes

Alison Macrina

An internet activist’s talk about digital privacy Monday at Princeton High School caused an uproar when the speaker began discussing trolling, racism, sexism and white nationalism. In response to students’ reactions, including laughter, the speaker then chastised students and talked about white privilege.

Some students criticized the talk, saying it veered off topic, while others said the speaker’s comments felt like a personal attack, and that students at Princeton High are not racist or sexist.

Students said some fellow students at the assembly called the speaker derogatory names during the gathering, including “crazy Femenazi bitch” and various words for the female anatomy. The speaker called them out for the name calling, angering some students, they said. Some students said they liked the assembly because the speaker called out racism and sexism.

Alison Macrina, a librarian and the founder and director of the Library Freedom Project, spoke about internet privacy at two events sponsored by the Princeton Public Library and the Princeton Public Schools. The high school principal sent an apology letter to students and parents about her talk the next day.

“Yesterday, PHS held an assembly that was intended to teach our students about online safety and digital citizenship skills that are needed in today’s digital landscape. The speaker at the assembly came to us highly recommended, but strayed from the original message and objective,” Princeton High Principal Gary Snyder wrote. “The speaker made statements that made some students feel uncomfortable, and a few students reacted in a way that also caused discomfort to their fellow students. We strive to be a school where all students feel truly safe, and where differing views and opinions can be discussed thoughtfully and respectfully. We will continue our work in that area.”

Asked for comment on the talk on Wednesday, Princeton Public Library Communications Director Tim Quinn said Library Executive Director Brett Bonfield was out of the office all day on Wednesday at an off-campus meeting. Bonfield issued a statement Thursday afternoon.

“Last spring, the library was asked to co-sponsor a school and community program related to digital citizenship. When I received the request, one of the people I thought of was Alison Macrina, whom I have seen lead several workshops at professional conferences and at libraries, and whose Library Freedom Project has won numerous awards and received extensive and positive press coverage,” Bonfield said in a prepared statement. “I thought the workshops I had seen her lead would resonate with Princeton High School students, faculty, and the general public. ”

Bonfield said the presentation at Princeton High School was different from the ones he has seen in the past and was different than what he expected to see this week, and it was not appropriate. He said Macrina did not engage in civil discourse and the outcome was the opposite of what he anticipated.

“For my role in this divisive and disappointing event, I apologize to the students, faculty, and parents of Princeton High School and to the community. I also applaud PHS Principal Gary Snyder’s subsequent handling of this very difficult situation. Like Mr. Snyder and all who work in our schools, I want every student to feel respected and valued in our community,” Bonfield wrote. “Princeton Public Library will redouble its commitment to reasoned engagement, respect, civil discourse, and education. We recognize that an important opportunity to discuss a topic of vital interest to all was lost. Along with my colleagues, I am committed to exploring issues related to personal online security at future programs at the library. I am also committed to investigating my assumptions and to reviewing the sequence of events that led to this outcome.”

Trump supporters felt targeted by her remarks. A mother of one student attended a public talk by Macrina Monday night and said she felt her son was treated in an insensitive way at the assembly because of his choice for president.

A few students began to harass Macrina on Twitter on Tuesday and Wednesday, calling her the c word, telling her she is “ugly as hell, ” suggesting she go and kill herself, and vowing to harass her. Other students defended Trump supporters and said most are not racist, claiming that all the swastikas that have appeared on buildings since the election were drawn by liberals who want to make Trump supporters look bad.

Planet Princeton has reached out to Macrina but has not received a response yet. After receiving numerous threatening tweets, Macrina made her Twitter account private Wednesday night.

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The principal’s note to Princeton High students Tuesday morning:

This is Principal Snyder and I’d like to take a few minutes to reflect with you on yesterday’s assemblies. I’d like to begin by acknowledging that the program didn’t go as expected, and for that I apologize. While our speaker sought to make important points regarding digital privacy and online safety, her strident style combined with provocative and inflammatory language caused students and adults to be understandably offended. While I, and some others, were able to see some value in the content she delivered, I acknowledge to you that I also took umbrage with several of her comments. As a result, and unfortunately, many of the important lessons of digital citizenship were largely lost.

Placing yesterday into context and using a phrase from your history courses, I’d call yesterday a “sign of the times.” We live in a turbulent time with emotions running high. While I can’t make excuses for our speaker, my perception is that she found herself caught up in the post-election climate and allowed that to influence her presentation.

So where do we go and what do we do? You know my answer… education is our foundation and our daily work. We will all learn from yesterday and continue our efforts in all of our classes to increase our knowledge and skills in all of the academic areas. The knowledge and skills needed in this digital age are all built upon the foundation of knowledge that you are studying. In addition, from a recent report published from MIT, it is emphasized that for 21st century digital literacy, there is greater need for schools to be teaching and students learning the required social skills of collaboration, cultural competencies, and networking.

I’d like to close by also giving thanks and praise to the students and teachers who continued yesterday with meaningful conversations and civil discourse on the various topics after the assemblies. It is always a point of pride for me to witness PHS engaged in constructive dialogue even in the most difficult of times. When we as a people can get past labels and name-calling, then we can engage in thoughtful and productive dialogue regarding the issues of our time. These discussions were happening yesterday in the hallways and classrooms of PHS. One of the intended lessons from yesterday was to also acknowledge that the conversations are happening online. We are part of a participatory culture that not only consumes news and information, but contributes to the production of that news. Your, and our, ability to do that in a productive and meaningful manner is critical for the times in which we live.

Yesterday, like many days, didn’t go as planned. Our strength is then to decide how best we can respond in adverse situations. As always, our focus is to “Live to Learn and Learn to Live.”

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Brenda Martin

    As an educator, I am appalled that she chose social media and an “assembly” to teens to further her personal agenda. Some people will do anything to get “followers”. As a Mom, she is very fortunate I was not in the room watching my son listen to her divisive rhetoric. She would have been shut
    down abruptly. I am all for dialogue and communication but this was not the cornerstone of this presentation. Selfish, self absorbed and ignorant are all terms that come to mind.

  • Robert Dana

    Indeed. And if challenged in the courts, I believe the SCOTUS (at least) would deem them unconstitutional under the First Amendment. (See my comments above in response to undisclosed Princeton Resident.) 10 years from now, it could be different. Polls of millennials show significant numbers don’t care so much about the freedom of speech guarantee.

  • Robert Dana

    Gee whiz. I’m not saying that all speech is protected. There are indeed various exceptions, including the so-called “fighting words” exceptions. The SCOTUS will not overturn a case unless it absolutely has to. So that means very little. The point is a speech code imposed by a State run college will most assuredly be struck down if and when reviewed by the high court.

    The Chaplansky (the original fighting words) case has been severely limited since it was decided in the 1940s. Check out RAV v. St. Paul and Snyder v. Phelps cases.

    In the later you will find that, like you, Justice (& Princeton’s own) Samuel Alito supports your shameful anti-free speech view. But, that is in dissent!

  • PrincetonResident

    The Supreme Court has had the opportunity to overturn the decision several times but each time chose not to. You are entitled to your own opinion, but the current law of the land as interpreted by the Supreme Court says that not all speech is protected.

  • Robert Dana

    I don’t think you understand the narrowness with which the SCOTUS views the “fighting words” exception. Since Holmes’ famous dissent has been accepted by a majority of the Court, there have been a mere handful of case punishing and/or restricting the speech at issue. If any of the speech suppression codes we hear about on college campuses these days were challenged under the First Amendment, they would be deemed unconstitutional by the SCOTUS. I have worked in this area for over three decades and am as confident in this opinion as Nate Silver and The Upshot were that Mrs. Clinton would win.

  • Dennis

    Alison is a product of our coddled and pathetic university system. How sad the high school didn’t intervene and stop the nonsense she was spouting. Aren’t faculty members present during presentations by outside individuals?

  • PrincetonResident

    This reply didn’t post yesterday, but the Supreme Court found that “fighting words” speech is not protected. Many of these incidents are in that category.

    The First Amendment is meant to protect the exposition of ideas, not the harassment of others.

  • PrincetonResident

    I think the burden is on you, not the victims, to prove the claim. A friend experienced a hate crime this week. It was not made up.

  • betterwould

    Actually for better or worse state universities and other governmental units are constantly policing and punishing people for their speech, “hate” speech and otherwise as they deem fit.

  • Fsclcnsrvtv

    It’s been proven many times over. Many of the supposed hate crimes have been found to be hoaxes. Please look it up.

  • Robert Dana

    Governmental entities don’t fine or punish people for what they say, except under the very rarest of circumstances. Thanks to, among others, the great Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

    If the object of the statement has a beef, there is a civil action for money damages under the law of defamation.

  • Metallo Serpente

    A 30-plus-year-old woman who ad hominems a bunch of 14-and-15-year olds with “white racist sexist trolls need to get a life” simply has no place in front of them. More ridiculous yet is a grown woman who engages in Twitter wars with those same 14 year olds. Such a person has no understanding of that audience, and, frankly, too little self-control to be standing in front of them.

    She’s an activist, and that’s fine. What we see here is why educators and professionals, not activists, should be talking about sensitive issues to young teens. This is particularly true of anyone so deluded as to think THIS community is a hotbed of white-privileged Trump supporters. Talk about not having a clue where she was.

    The fact of the matter is that she was supposed to be the adult in the room. Not only did she fail in that task, she proved that even with hours to calm down, she STILL couldn’t resist shrieking to the world her grievances, bickering with teenagers as she did so. The richest irony in this is that she went to the school to warn teenagers about the dangers of broadcasting unsavory portraits of themselves across the web … and then finished this episode by doing precisely that.

  • cloudy2

    She’s not the ‘adult’ in the room.
    But, she does know her stuff.

    Unfortunately, her personality is such,
    that this didn’t come thru.

    Think of you when you were 13.

  • cloudy2

    ‘there is a proper way to act’

    Every audience reacts, except if you are at TEDx or something. I am opposed to putting the speaker in physical danger

    She went in with an attitude that these were spoiled rotten apples of the barrel.
    What she should have done is find out what level of ‘security’ most students were at by asking questions, like ‘how many of you think that x program is all right?’ ‘how many of you use x app?’

    I think she went away thinking the same thing, that these are spoiled rotten apples of the barrel, etc.

    I’m sure that she’s not upset at this reaction. It would be nice if she treated
    her audience as human beings, first, instead of attacking them.

    She went in with a mission.
    She delivered on it.

  • Cara Marcano

    So this justifies kids showing her tremendous disrespect. She is the invited speaker. There is a proper way to act.

  • Cara Marcano

    I don’t think giving a less than stellar speech justifies what these kids and the principal and all involved in inviting her are accused of doing. Show respect. Show love. The person does not have to be a perfect speaker or a white man to merit respect. There is no excuse for a child interrupting an adult like this and no excuse for misogyny out loud and online. All of those kids who did that should be expelled. For writing hate speech about a woman online. Their parents should also be fined.

  • Cara Marcano

    Wow. A raging endorsement for our public schools. Just wow. Alison Macrina seems like a really interesting and intelligent and beautiful human being. So sorry she was treated this way. Disappointing.

  • Zoe Brookes

    I agree with Julia. I encourage the whole community to work together to teach our children empathetic behavior. All adults can help by modeling respect. Our schools should ensure they address the language of hate whenever it crops up among the young people whose education is in their charge.

  • Julia Rubin

    I was not at either assembly and have only heard second hand accounts of what happened.

    I am very concerned by what I read in this article, particularly the misogynistic comments.

    This is not consistent with the Princeton I know and love.

    I hope we as a community can have a broader conversation about tolerance for diverse viewpoints and the need to ensure a welcoming space for everyone.

  • PrincetonResident

    I’m concerned by the student blaming the swastikas on liberals. That type of denial of intolerance is very troubling.

  • Dan D’Menny

    Yes. She’s paid to be the adult in the room, and she resorted to crying over election results and blaming “white people” (when 90% of the “white people” in the room were/are anti-Trump). Shame on her.

  • Robert Dana

    This is an amusing story. All involved apparently don’t know how to behave.

    The speaker – for going off topic and not realizing that – taking the lead from their parents – most of our precious high schoolers already wallow in guilt for their white privilege. 24/7.

    The students – for being rude and resorting to ad hominem attacks rather than addressing the speaker’s remarks on the merits. (I’d prefer they just sit there, be gracious hosts and let the woman hang herself without giving her a defensible side to the story.)

    The Principal – for not using the incident as a teaching moment about the importance of resilience. And for apologizing to the students for their having to suffer in an “unsafe” space. What was unsafe about it? Were there threats of violence to the youngsters? Was the roof of the auditorium in danger of caving in from a storm?

    The only storm in Princeton these days is a smug storm.

  • Thomas D

    And by the way, one of the biggest markers differentiating goofy millennials from the upcoming Gen Z will be this: The millennials will be tarred with all their tattoos. The kids coming up now will regard tattoos as a sign of “stupid old people” and avoid them like the plague.

    Alison Macrina is already out of date.

    (If you own a tattoo parlor, you may want to start thinking about the next step in life. Your bubble is about to burst.)

  • Thomas D

    Gen Z has its head on straight, and is going to show these goofball millennials what the world is really like.

  • disappointed

    What I’m most disappointed with is that the presenter, instead of turning inward and seeing how future presentation could be improved, took to twitter to lash out at the students who were understandably upset by her.

  • Days of Broken Arrows

    The more things change, the more they stay the same. These “internet activists” remind me of the anti-rock music activists of my own youth, who would lecture on the “evils” of so-called satanic heavy metal, wildly exaggerating anything associated with the music. Kids aren’t idiots. They know instinctively when adults are blowing a problem out of proportion, creating a “moral panic,” and giving them false information. Heavy metal might have been unsavory and/or downright crude, but listening to it didn’t ruin our lives. Most of us all have jobs, wives, and kids. And we still rock out to Ozzy! Whatever is going on with “trolling” sounds bad, but I don’t think it’s being realistically represented by this modern-day equivalent of the PMRC (look it up) and the kids knew that. Bravo to the kids for having a good B.S. detector — they’ll need it to navigate this society.

  • PaulFurber

    Teenage daughter unwilling to share details with dad? Impossible! 🙂

  • cloudy2

    I wouldn’t blame the principal.

    Anyone familiar with her language and the fact that she goes off-topic almost immediately, means that she is a very ineffective lecturer. She must have been recommended by someone unfamiliar with all of her works.

    I believe she means well and I share her mission, but she is not a good public speaker.

  • @tkq

    Hi there. It’s Tim Quinn, who is mentioned above. Due to a miscommunication, I thought Brett was in meetings outside the library all day. It turned out that, while he was in meetings most of the day, not all were out of the library. When I received Krystal’s request yesterday afternoon, Brett was out of the library and I made the incorrect assumption that he would not be returning for the rest of the day. I’ve explained this miscommunication to Brett and apologized for the confusion. Thank you for providing an opportunity for me to clarify this point.

  • Liz Winslow

    So essentially, not a single person involved behaved appropriately? Awesome.

  • Princeton Rez

    Just a small detail, I’m sure I saw the library director in the library yesterday afternoon.

  • John irving

    My daughter mentioned the brouhaha at the high school assembly. She didn’t give me the details. It wasn’t until I read Planet Princeton that I learned what was going on. Thanks.

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