How Princeton Eviscerated Its Free Speech Rule and Covered It Up

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics on March 5, 2022, and is republished here with permission.

In July 2020, a Princeton University professor, Joshua Katz, wrote an article containing provocative language that generated controversy on campus. While voicing strong disagreement with that language, Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber clearly and publicly stated a few days later that it was protected by Princeton’s university-wide rule on free speech. But since then, through other Princeton officials, the university has for over a year viciously attacked Professor Katz as a racist on its website and elsewhere for the exact same language. These attacks have clearly violated the Princeton free speech rule, as well as other Princeton rules.

When eight Princeton professors, acting as whistleblowers, filed a formal complaint about these attacks last October, high-ranking Princeton officials responded with a ruling that can only be described as a crude attempt to cover up the university’s violations; in the process, they eviscerated the free speech rule. The officials absurdly found that the widely disseminated presentation smearing Katz was not an “official University document” despite overwhelming public evidence that it is. They also issued a false interpretation of the free speech rule, stating dishonestly that it did not apply to Professor Katz’s language. Furthermore, under their deliberate misinterpretation, the free speech rule will no longer protect the vast majority of other statements by students and faculty that are clearly protected by its language and intent.

Indeed, this misinterpretation will carve the heart out of Princeton’s free speech rule. When the lead author of the complaint sought to appeal the ruling to President Eisgruber, he referred the appeal to Dean of the Faculty Gene Jarrett. Jarrett confirmed the ruling without noting that it effectively negates the free speech rule.

On behalf of Princetonians for Free Speech, we condemn the Princeton administration for these actions. They not only destroy Princeton’s acclaimed free speech rule, but they also raise serious ethical and legal questions. We are not alone. Two highly respected national free speech organizations – the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) – are also publicly criticizing Princeton’s actions.

In a letter to the board of trustees and to the leadership of Princeton, ACTA President Michael Poliakoff said this action “puts Princeton itself in the position of violating its own rules by severely harassing a member of the academic community whose speech the president declared to be protected.” In a statement, Robert Shibley, executive director of FIRE, said: “Princeton’s absurd labeling of its slickly produced website insulting Professor Katz – created at the behest of and sponsored by a half-dozen administrative offices, with its own subdomain on Princeton’s site – as not an ‘official University document’ shows that its pronouncements simply cannot be trusted. Faculty, students, and alumni should avoid putting much stock in Princeton’s promises of free speech or of anything else as long as the university leadership is so obviously and blatantly willing to put politics over principle.”

[Related: “On Distinguishing Political Attacks from Academic Criticism”]

The following is a detailed history of Princeton’s actions. On July 8, 2020, Professor Katz, whose awards and reputation show him to be the best teacher in the Classics Department and one of the best in the university, wrote an article in Quillette criticizing a letter to President Eisgruber sent over the names of more than three hundred Princeton faculty members. The letter contained numerous “anti-racist” demands. Katz argued – correctly – that one of the demands called for illegal racial discrimination in favor of nonwhite faculty members. He asserted that another demand – the establishment of a faculty committee “to oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication” – would establish “a star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, punishment, suspension, even dismissal” of faculty dissenters from campus orthodoxy.

The racism claims against Professor Katz have centered on the following sentence in his Quillette article: “The Black Justice League, which was active on campus from 2014 until 2016, was a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands.”

Eisgruber assailed Katz on July 12, 2020, by saying that his article “failed” in his “obligation to exercise [his free speech] right responsibly.” A university spokesperson added that the administration “will be looking into the matter further.” Eight days later, Eisgruber announced that Princeton’s policies “protect Katz’s freedom to say what he did” and that universities must “remain steadfastly devoted to both free speech and inclusivity.”

The policy to which President Eisgruber referred, “University-wide Regulation 1.1.3, Statement on Freedom of Expression,” begins: “Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” The full regulation, adopted in 2015 by a vote of the Princeton faculty, was modeled verbatim on the so-called “Chicago Statement,” which also originated in 2015, at the University of Chicago. It is widely regarded as the gold standard for robust protection of free speech on campus at private as well as public universities. And as Eisgruber admitted, it very clearly protects Professor Katz’s article. It is a rule that applies to faculty, students, and administrators – and certainly to the university itself.

Despite President Eisgruber’s announcement, Princeton administrators proceeded to produce a presentation – “To Be Known and Heard: Systemic Racism and Princeton University” – that denigrates free speech in a manner contradicting the clear intent of Princeton’s free speech rule. As is noted above, it also attacks Professor Katz as a racist for the same language that President Eisgruber had said was protected speech. In the process, Princeton administrators deliberately doctored the language by deleting a key phrase that conflicted with their effort to brand the professor a racist.

In January 2021, this presentation, officially sponsored by ten Princeton departments and offices and including the attack on the professor, was announced to the entire Princeton community. It has been on the official Princeton website ever since. In August, the presentation was a centerpiece of the orientation for the entering class. Thus, from January 2021 until the present, Princeton University has continually smeared Professor Katz by attacking his protected speech as racist.

It is also noteworthy that a video was shown during the orientation in which a professor very explicitly denigrated free speech. There was not one word in the orientation about the importance of free speech or about Princeton’s free speech rules. In short, Princeton officials used the orientation not to support free speech, but to attack it.

[Related: “Forbidden Campus Speech”]

In October 2021, eight distinguished Princeton professors filed a formal complaint expressing grave concern about the treatment of Professor Katz and stating that the presentation violated several Princeton rules in its treatment of him. In December, in an official response to the complaint, Michele Minter, Princeton’s vice provost for institutional equity and diversity, rejected it in every respect. The Minter letter found that the presentation was not an “official Princeton document,” an assertion that cannot pass the laugh test: The presentation says it was produced by two Princeton departments; its public announcement to the entire Princeton community was sponsored by ten departments and offices of Princeton; it was placed on the official Princeton website by Princeton administrators; it was introduced to the entire entering class by a Princeton dean; and it contains the trademark and copyright of Princeton. Under Princeton’s written policies, “Use of the University’s … trademarks symbolizes authority to conduct such activities on behalf of the institution.”

The Minter ruling compounded the absurdity by holding that the Katz language was not protected by the free speech rule or by Princeton’s rules protecting against punishment or mistreatment of people for their speech. The ruling retroactively reinterpreted the rule by lifting a definition of “harassment” from a completely different rule and applying it to the free speech rule, with no justification for doing so from the language or intent of either rule.

The result of the Minter misinterpretation is to render the free speech rule a shell – a rule that would protect only a small subset of the speech that the rule’s language and intent clearly do protect. A student or faculty member can be bullied or harassed right off the campus for speech, even for speech that has been found by the president of the university to be protected.

The eight professors appealed the Minter ruling to President Eisgruber, setting forth why its conclusions were clearly erroneous and the impact they would have in chilling free speech at Princeton. Eisgruber bucked the appeal to Jarrett, who summarily found no reason to reverse the ruling. He noted that there was an appeal to a faculty committee, but that committee does not have to take jurisdiction and all it could do, even if it found in favor of the appeal, is to send a recommendation back to the administration, which has already rejected the appeal.

Even before this reprehensible action, Princeton had been ranked dead last in the Ivy League, and a dismal 134 out of 159 universities, in the latest FIRE rankings on free speech.

As one of the eight whistleblowing professors said in the appeal to the faculty committee, “We believe that the principles of academic freedom and fair treatment have been violated here and fear that anyone of us can be treated in the same fashion and face similar abuse by members of the University’s administration. The danger of retribution, which affects us all, will have a pervasive chilling effect on free speech at Princeton.”

The Princeton board of trustees has a fiduciary duty to take prompt action. Princeton’s reputation is at stake. The trustees should investigate this matter and immediately have the Minter letter withdrawn. The university should require that its administrators cease violating its own rules. And the university should apologize to Professor Katz for its knowing violations of his protected free speech rights.

Image: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain


4 thoughts on “How Princeton Eviscerated Its Free Speech Rule and Covered It Up

  1. I’m very disturbed by this essay. It appears to be a demand for Princeton University to censor free speech, on the grounds that no one should be allowed to criticize a professor because that is “bullying” and “retaliation.” I cannot understand why Yingling and Taylor’s attack on free speech is somehow twisted by them into a defense of free speech, or why Princeton’s free speech rule requires (or even allows) the administration to silence critiques of Katz.

    1. The distinction is simple: any ONE is free to criticize a professor, the university itself, acting collectively, is not.

    2. Just wait until you’re publicly tarred by the administration for being a “racist.” You’ll sing a different tune.

      Or can you not conceive of that ever happening? You think the revolution will never come for you.

    3. But Yingling & Taylor are not attacking free speech…nor would they seek to limit anyone’s right to criticize Professor’s Katz’s Quillette essay (which, by the way, was completely on-target).

      What they are criticizing, rightfully so, is Princeton’s obvious abandonment of the Free Speech principles the school itself so publicly adopted: “Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University, Princeton University fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the University community “to discuss any problem that presents itself.” What they are criticizing is the rabid attack by the University upon the speech of a professor the school is sworn to protect.

      The University’s reaction to Katz’s essay….or, more accurately, their reaction to the Mob’s reaction to Katz’s essay criticizing the racist demands issued in the “Faculty Letter” (July 4, 2020)….is clearly a violation of the guarantee the University itself provided. And the pressure applied by the University…by faculty within the university…by organizations sponsored by the University to ‘cancel’ Katz this intolerance is absolutely unacceptable…especially within an Institution which should stand as a bulwark against the tyranny they themselves are so eagerly displaying.

      Rather than being disturbed by their defense of Katz; you should celebrate it. And hope that we ourselves are afforded that same defense when we speak freely.

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