Princeton University punishes professor for exercising free speech, shows it doesn’t understand what “free speech” really is.

April 13, 2022 • 10:45 am

I’m always surprised by the high quality of reporting in Tablet, as it doesn’t seem to be a site many people read.  It also has the reputation of being a “Jewish magazine,” which of course puts off some people, but if you look at its articles, you’ll find many of them that don’t have anything to do with Jews or Judaism. One example is the article below. It’s about the increasingly bizarre behavior of Princeton University, which is in the process of “canceling” a professor for some remarks he made about a black student group. Because the remarks were deemed racist by some, the school decided to permanently place Classics Professor Joshua Katz on a list of racist professors and actions—an official site that’s made available to incoming Princeton students as a “teaching document”.

Even if you think Katz’s remarks were unwise (I do, though I don’t see them as racist), they still constitute free speech and an exercise of academic freedom. For the University to demonize Katz for his statement, and to parade him before students as an exemplar of a racist, is a violation of the viewpoint neutrality that Princeton claims it has. Worse, when Katz fought back, supported by many of his fellow professors, Princeton claimed a “right” to add him to the List of Bad People because that was Princeton exercising its freedom of speech. (The President of Princeton also issued a statement officially denouncing Katz.)

Befuddled as Princeton and its president (Christopher Eisgruber) are, they can’t distinguish between free speech and the chilling of speech enacted by making official statements of what is politically unacceptable. That is, they are mixing up the strictures of our University of Chicago’s Principles of Free Speech with our University’s Kalven Report, with the latter mandating that the University and its constituent units make no official statements about ideology, morality, or politics unless they have to do with the functioning and purpose of the university: teaching and learning.  Princeton was in fact the first University to adopt Chicago’s Principles of Free Expression (about 80 universities have now done so). But Princeton doesn’t really understand these principles, and so, as its head goes up its fundament, has decided to make an example of Katz by consigning him to academic perdition.

Click the screenshot to read:

The scenario in short (statements from the Tablet are indented). First, though, I’d ignore Tablet‘s opening screed about what “social justice” is.  To me it’s a confusing discussion and not really relevant to this story except insofar as Katz is accused of being anti-social justice..

1.) Katz made a comment in an article he wrote in Quillette about the “Black Justice League” and about a faculty letter describing pervasive structural racism at Princeton. Here’s part of Katz’s a response to the faculty demands made in their letter (the first quote is from the letter):

“Acknowledge, credit, and incentivize anti-racist student activism. Such acknowledgment should, at a minimum, take the form of reparative action, beginning with a formal public University apology to the members of the Black Justice League and their allies.” 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 the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands. Recently I watched an “Instagram Live” of one of its alumni leaders, who—emboldened by recent events and egged on by over 200 supporters who were baying for blood—presided over what was effectively a Struggle Session against one of his former classmates. It was one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed, and I do not say this lightly.

The bit in bold was Katz’s undoing, particularly the phrase “terrorist group”, though the “struggle session” was against a black student and other witnesses say that that usage is accurate.

2.) Princeton put Katz’s statement—missing a crucial bit—on an official document, “To Be Known and Heard“, which recounts the racist background and nature of Princeton. This document is used didactically for new students. Also, via President Eisgruber, Princeton issued statements assailing Katz’s piece in Quillette. Again, this would be a violation of my own University’s Kalven Report: an official damning of a professor for his/her political views.

3.) In the “To Be Known and Heard” document, Princeton left out, in their quote, the parenthetical “(including many black students)”. As Tablet notes,

In order to damage Katz’s reputation as much as possible, the creators of Princeton’s rogues’ gallery of racists, an official document that bears the copyright of the university’s Board of Trustees, omitted the parenthetical words “(including the many black students).” Keep in mind that any student who had doctored a quotation, especially intentionally and with malice, would likely have been suspended.

The gallery omits any mention of Katz’s response when he was asked by The Daily Princetonian to clarify what he meant by “terrorist” and “Struggle Session,” or what he has said about these matters elsewhere. This is what Katz wrote:

… the BJL went after one fellow black student with particular vigor, verbally vilifying her in public at every possible opportunity, calling her all sorts of unsavory epithets and accusing her of “performing white supremacy.” Other students, as well as faculty and administrators, were accused, without evidence, of being “racists” and “white supremacists.”

4.) Katz is thus now a permanent part of an official Princeton “rogue gallery” of racists and racist acts. That gallery would not be allowed at the University of Chicago because it’s an official university document containing arguable contentions as well as implicitly punishing out a university professor for his speech.

5.) Respected organizations defending academic freedom called on Princeton and Eisgruber to rescind Katz’s treatment. From Tablet:

The treatment of Katz in the mandatory freshmen orientation has generated a lot of criticism, most notably from the three most prestigious American organizations dedicated to academic freedom: the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA). (I am a founding member of the AFA, as is Katz.) In his letter to Eisgruber, Keith Whittington, the chair of the academic committee of the AFA and a professor of Politics at Princeton, writes, “We are not aware of any other example of a university systematically denouncing a sitting member of its own faculty in such a way. … We call on the university to refrain from using its administrative resources to target Professor Katz or other members of the faculty in its official activities and programming.”

The AFA letter (pdf here) is especially good. A quote from it:

The university climate would quickly become poisonous and intolerable if administrative units on campus made it a practice to hold up dissenting members of the faculty for ritual condemnation and if the precedent now being set were followed in the future. If the Office of the Vice President for Campus Life uses its administrative position on campus to organize official university programming for the purpose of heaping opprobrium on faculty for expressing disfavored personal political opinions, the risks of chilling speech on campus are severe. The university can hardly create a climate welcoming of heterodox opinions if it creates an administrative apparatus to target the heterodox and stamp them as campus pariahs.

. . . Professors expressing controversial political opinions should expect criticism from members of the campus community, and if those views are unpopular then no doubt such criticism will be loud. However, professors should not have to anticipate that the university administration will adopt those criticisms as its own and place members of its faculty in the pillory as an object lesson for each class of entering students to learn where the boundaries of acceptable speech can be found.

6.) Did Princeton give any credence to any of these letters? It did not. In fact, it accused these organizations of demanding that Princeton violate its own freedom of speech by withholding official criticism of Katz. This is unbelievable:

The university has not yet responded to the accusations—the latter two of which are especially broad—of FIRE, ACTA, or PFS. Eisgruber did, however, reply speedily to Whittington, feigning concern that what the AFA is asking for is contrary to academic freedom and amounts to censorship.

“Are you asking that I censor the website?” Eisgruber inquired. “If so, I find that request” (which is similar to the requests of FIRE, ACTA, and PFS) ”troubling, and I would need to understand better how you reconcile it with the principles of academic freedom and free speech that you champion. I am certain that you would agree that, on a University campus, censorship, including via the compelled removal of information from a website, is a strongly disfavored response to controversial speech.”

In defending the shameful treatment of Katz though such scholastic gymnastics, Princeton’s president seems to be advancing the bizarre notion that somehow the free speech protections enshrined in the university’s rules and regulations extend to administrators in situations where they exercise their official power in order to denounce, harass, and otherwise discredit and threaten individual members of the academic community.

This is a bit like saying that, in denouncing would-be traitors of the Soviet Union on trumped-up charges, Andrey Vyshinsky, the main prosecutor of Stalin’s Moscow trials in the 1930s, was simply exercising his freedom of speech. Or that Joseph McCarthy was merely exercising his right to free speech when he launched his campaign in the 1950s to unearth hidden Communists in Hollywood. Or that the Cultural Revolutionaries in China who denounced their countrymen for imaginary crimes were free speech heroes.

A University has no “freedom of speech” to officially punish a professor who exercises his own freedom of speech.

7.) Complaints to other Princeton administrators have met with the same kind of pushback. The Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity, Michele Minter, argued that the “To Be Known and Heard” website “is not an official university document” (it is; it’s on a site and has been called “teaching material” by President Eisgruber). Further, Minter claims that Katz isn’t a member of a “protected class”, which is irrelevant, though I think he’s probably Jewish.

And so Princeton, while espousing free speech, has created a climate in which a professor who exercises that right is officially damned by the the University and held up to the students as an example of racism. If that’s not punishment for speech, I don’t know what is.

Two comments. First, Princeton’s twisted construal of free speech appears to be a form espoused by one faculty member quoted in the Tablet article (the professor turns out to be Padilla Peralta, whom we’ve met before):

Instead, freshmen were informed by a professor that he “envision[s] a free speech and academic discourse that is flexed to one specific aim, and that aim is the promotion of social justice, and an anti-racist social justice at that.”

And here’s a reaction to the Princeton mishigass by a fellow academic:

[Eisgruber] is a spineless toady to the woke mob that has taken over Princeton.

You ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie!

22 thoughts on “Princeton University punishes professor for exercising free speech, shows it doesn’t understand what “free speech” really is.

  1. I just got that Stanley Fish book Save The World On Your Own Time – excellent book. Not to digress, but I digress :

    I really liked his general point that a job is “this” but importantly, “not that”, which he rapidly focused to academics. The empowerment that gives to anyone in any job should be clear.

  2. If I were to name what I think are the 2 or 3 best magazine today, Tablet would be among them. I’ve been reading it for about 2 years and it has published extraordinary things by writers such as James Kirchick among many others.

    Its editor, Alan Newhouse, wrote this article which should be widely read: “Everything is Broken”

    Here is its homepage and look over the writers it’s featuring at the moment:

  3. Katz called a student group “a small local terrorist organization” for exercising their right to free speech, that’s what started this. Why the wailing and gnashing of teeth about Katz’s speech being chilled and nothing about the student group? Professors calling students terrorists for their speech strikes me as a much bigger risk to free speech and inquiry than the university telling professors not to do that.

    1. Excuse me? Looks like you don’t understand free speech, either. Katz didn’t call them a “terrorist group” for exercising their right to free speech; he called them a terrorist group because he didn’t like the way they operated, as in having that struggle session. If I criticize the “Squad” for lauding terrorists, I am not criticizing them for exercising their right to free speech, I am criticizing them for lauding terrorists.

      I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.

      1. You’re excused, just maybe do some fact checking before publishing your next screed about how the woke mob is destroying universities.

        Calling it a “struggle session” doesn’t change the fact that it was a group of students exercising their right to free speech. He called them a terrorist group for exercising their right to free speech, simple as that. I’m just surprised you don’t find that troubling.

        1. You seem unable to distinguish between free speech and actions that use free speech to hurt and intimidate other people and in fact bully them, which is what he was writing about. He was writing about how the group used, in his view, its power to intimidate others and in fact harass them. That’s legal, but it’s not civil right. If I called you ugly and stupiid and made you very upset because you are in fact those things, I have a right to do that in public but it’s not right to do that. If you read what the guy wrote, you see that it’s this intimidation that he’s referring to.

          You seem unable to distinguish between free speech that has different effects on people. It’s all legal, and I will fight for people’s right to speek freely (subjet to the court’s restrictions, which does ban some harassment), but I will also advise bullies that they shouldn’t be deliberately intimidating people.

          As for you, you’ve violated the Roolz.

  4. The Tablet seems like an excellent publication but by calling itself “A new read on Jewish life”, it doesn’t sound attractive to non-Jews. If I’m not Jewish, and I’m not, why would I read it unless someone I respect, like our host, directs me to a specific article? Browsing its home page, it does seem like most articles are about ostensibly Jewish topics.

  5. Many articles in Tablet are specifically concerned with Jewish subjects, but by no means all of them. There have been brilliant essays on topics of general literary/cultural/political interest by the following among others. Paul Berman (author of “Terror an Liberalism”), whose range of knowledge in these spheres in multiple languages is astounding; Michael Lind, a contrarian who is also widely informed and always thought-provoking; Joel Kotkin, a sociologist specializing in urban affairs, likewise always thought-provoking.

    Their political alignments are interesting. Berman, with affinities to the old anarchist, anti-Stalinist Left, would now occupy a position in the quadrant close to that of most of WEIT’s readers; Kotkin reads like a sort-of erudite conservative; Lind is absolutely unclassifiable. [Google search on their names plus Tablet will pull up their essays.]

  6. Insightful article by Jonathan Haidt in the Atlantic.

    Using the Tower of Babel metaphor to describe modern social media technical features that erode trust in democracy (i.e. the “Like” feature).

    God speaking in Genesis:

    “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

    1. This article is excellent :

      “Later research showed that posts that trigger emotions––especially anger at out-groups––are the most likely to be shared.”

    1. Mamet has turned into a bit of a crank in his dotage — though that doesn’t stop me from appreciating most of his plays and many of his movies.

  7. Shocking behaviour by Princeton, not least the blatantly untrue claim that “To Be Known and Heard […] is not an official university document” when the institution hosts it on its website and its president calls it “teaching material”.

  8. It’s so much easier and effective to paint an opponent as a racist when he disagrees with your politics than it is to accept him as an honest disputant. For Princeton this is not a question of speech, but of conformity, and since what Princeton wants people to conform to is correct in its eyes, he doesn’t deserve fair treatment.

  9. My solution to free speech in the classroom is to frame our discussions in terms of merely playing with ideas, testing them out, and separating an idea that I or my students might say from what they personally hold to be true. Now, of course, any student can say something in my class and claim it as their own personal position or belief; but the default, as I have instituted in my classes, is that what you say is not necessarily the position you hold.

    Even though I’m teaching music, we had a discussion yesterday about diversity of jazz styles in light of the fungibility of ideas – that diversity in other arenas, and diversity in jazz, might well have something to say about the other.

  10. It would be criminal neglect to not mention the German idiom here, which may exist in jiddish: “…für die Katz’” or literally “for the cat”. This expression must have been a sigh of frustration of an ancestor who prepared a fine meal, which fell to the floor, and was now only good “for the cat” — much work for nothing. That might best describe Prof. Katz academic prospects now (though I guess he’ll be fine elsewhere).

    You observe that the university “doesn’t really understand what freedom of speech is” when they put Katz on a pillory black list “teaching document”. I come to think that their view is an increasingly fashionable interpretation of freedom of speech, which is occasionally dubbed “consequence culture” (itself a wry and winking euphemism of cancel culture, which of course is but a myth invented by the right-wingers).

    This is in my view still misunderstood: only on the surface argue proponents for stricter limits on freedom of speech, and seem censorious. In actuality, there is a kind of authoritarian logic to it: if the speaker is liked, they can say anything, including extreme libel. They can gang up, and try to get opponents fired, doxed, intimidated, harassed etcetera. “anything goes”; acceptable methods which could be construed as “free speech absolutism”. Trying to get people banned, or make authorities come down on them is a natural extension of that attitude: whatever is necessary to shut someone up forever.

    However, if the speaker is disliked, the whole situation is flipped to its opposite extreme: every criticism, even constructive on people’s own (smallish) blog or forum is inacceptable, every twitter that isn’t outright praise is seen as vile harassment, which is subsequently made a big affair to mobilise the own side (who are then free to dish out however they like). Those who remember the “Deep Rift” in atheism will remember sometimes tragi-comical examples of this.

    In that sense Princeton University embraces “consequence culture”.

  11. Is the Princeton administration channeling the SCOTUS position that corporations are people? They appear to view the university (or the part they control) as an individual with freedom of speech rights.

    1. Yes john. That also crossed my mind. Though I am but a lowly engineer, i would like Ken K’s authoritative take on it.

  12. All interesting comments here. Mine is simple. Again we witness the great firing circle of Progressives who never want to miss a moment to annihilate another. Sadly, valid Progressive ideas will lose because that culture insists on all or none. And the “Maginot Line” of the moment keeps moving, proving no one can ever be woke enough for the woke of the wokest.

    1. I agree, as I’m a conservative and see more interests in “annihilation” of one’s opponents coming from the left than the right. However, conservatives certainly don’t own the political space occupied by voters who value a respectful culture, and even if they did, it’s been a shrinking space for a while now, maybe 25-50 years. My hypothesis is that the political pendulum of politeness will reverse soon and this is unplowed ground for politicians of all stripes. In other words, some leader will soon show both parties that re-introducing respect, courage and integrity as core values (in our culture, not our statutes) are to be higher priorities than defining past sins of racism, for example, or labeling one another as good or bad. The new governor of Virginia comes to mind, but there are a few on the left too.

      The progressives have an opportunity to beat conservatives to the punch (pardon the Biden pun) and adopt politeness, courage and integrity as new “progressive” values given their long term demise in all identity, political and class groups.

      Lastly, we can’t return to a respectful culture by labeling the impolite among us. We must simply support those leaders who show us how to lead by being truthful and positive, those who undermine their weak or rude opponents only by honestly and respectfully drawing their supporters away to a better vision, and better outcomes.

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