Commentary: The Grave Danger to Free Speech and Academic Freedom at Princeton

Stuart Taylor, Jr., PFS President
PFS exclusive content

January 1, 2021

In a nation where, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), “The vast majority of students at America’s top colleges and universities surrender their free speech rights the moment they step onto campus,” Princeton has in the past championed free speech more than most. In 2015 it became one of the first universities to adopt as a university regulation (through a faculty vote) the “Chicago Principles,” guaranteeing “all members of the university the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” In the summer of 2018 President Eisgruber sent Professor Keith Whittington’s Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech as the annual “Pre-read” to every member of the entering first-year class and all current Princeton students and faculty. This summer he wrote a pro-free speech op-ed for the Daily Princetonian.

But the University Administration has seemed to some to be slower to defend speech by conservative and centrist students that offends progressives than when it’s the other way around. And FIRE, which rates more than 450 higher education institutions on protecting free speech and other civil liberties, currently gives Princeton “the speech code rating red” because it “both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

More important, the challenges by activist faculty and student groups at Princeton to traditional free speech and academic freedom values have become potent and constant. For example:

FIRE Vice President Samantha Harris, a 1999 Princeton graduate, posted on July 8, 2020 on FIRE’s website an article headlined “Princeton faculty petition threatens free speech, academic freedom.” She wrote:

“At my alma mater, Princeton University, [more than 350] faculty, staff, and graduate students have signed a petition demanding the university ‘take immediate concrete and material steps to openly and publicly acknowledge the way that anti-Black racism, and racism of any stripe, continue to thrive on its campus. [Princeton has about 1,200 full-time and part-time faculty members.]

“The petition [published on July 4] includes a long list of ‘demands,’ several of which stand in direct opposition to Princeton students’ and faculty members’ rights to free speech, academic freedom, and freedom of conscience. (Notably, one of them — a demand that faculty of color receive extra pay and sabbatical time compared to white faculty — is simply illegal.) . . .

“The most chillingly illiberal demand in the petition asks Princeton to ‘[c]onstitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, . . . Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.’ ”

Interestingly, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic found by interviewing signers that many of them “are vehemently opposed to the demand beneath which they put their names.”

Freedom of speech on campus is often more at risk from peer pressure to conform to the dominant viewpoints than from official sanction. Surveys show that fear of expressing reasoned opinions that others might find offensive is pervasive in academia these days. It is also constricts the diversity of viewpoints that is critical to the educational process. In a 2019 national survey by Heterodox Academy (a group advocating intellectual freedom and diversity), for example, more than half of students said they were sometimes reluctant to express their opinions on politics, race, religion, and/or sexuality in class discussions. And “Republican students were more reluctant than students who identified with other political groups to give their views on politics, race, sexuality, and gender.” Other student surveys have found similar data. And there is no reason to suppose that education at Princeton is less degraded by lack of viewpoint diversity than at other campuses.

In addition to the petition discussed by Ms. Harris, on June 22 a group of more than 240 students in Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, self-described as “the Class of 2020 with our allies in the classes of 2021 and 2022,” submitted a list of demands to the Administration including “anti-racist training at least once per semester for all faculty (including tenured professors), staff, preceptors, and administrators.”

In response to the faculty petition, Professor Joshua Katz, of the Classics Department, published on the website Quillette, on July 8, 2020, an article headlined “A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor.” He sharply criticized the faculty petition, which begins: “Anti-blackness is foundational to America,” and objected to many of the demands, including the above-mentioned committee on “racist behaviors." Dr. Katz said that “would be a star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, punishment, suspension, even dismissal.” He also assailed demands for preferences and special compensation and perks to faculty “of color” -- and only to them -- for their “invisible work, and for “a core distribution requirement focused on the history and legacy of racism in the country and on the campus.” That, he suggested, would “teach the 1619 Project as dogma.”

Dr. Katz was then deluged with personal attacks and demands for discipline by faculty members including four colleagues who used the Princeton Classics website to denounce his language as “abhorrent” and suggested that he had placed “Black colleagues, students, and alums at serious risk.” These attacks focused on his description of the Black Justice League, which had not been heard from since 2016, as “a small local terrorist” group “that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with the group’s demands.”

In a subsequent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Dr. Katz said that BJL members had in years past “targeted and smeared fellow undergraduates for disagreeing with them." He criticized a social media post by a BJL alumni leader "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.” Dr. Katz added that “many people who privately say they agree with me are too frightened to state their opinions publicly​​."

Indeed, BJL leaders have repeatedly demeaned black students with racially charged accusations such as “performing white supremacy” for declining to endorse BJL’s aims and methods. BJL itself recently smeared a Princeton politics lecturer as a racist because he opposes racial preferences for nonwhites.

President Eisgruber joined in the verbal attacks on Dr. Katz on July 12, saying that “I object personally and strongly to his false description of a Princeton student group as a ‘local terrorist organization’ ” and that Dr. Katz “has unfairly disparaged members of the Black Justice League” and “failed” in his “obligation to exercise [his free speech] right responsibly.” University Spokesperson Ben Chang added that the Administration “will be looking into the matter further.”

This threat of a possible investigation was left standing for eight days, and received a good deal of publicity, before President Eisgruber finally did what the Chicago Principles seemingly required from the start, by announcing on July 20 that there would be no further action against Dr. Katz for exercising his right of free speech.

Contemporaneously, in a matter that did not receive media attention, there were social media attacks on a rising sophomore by fellow Princeton students who labeled him a “racist,” a “Nazi,” and a “fascist” who should suffer “social ostracism.” He was attacked for signing (as did more than 20 others) a June 30 letter to President Eisgruber from the “Princeton Open Campus Coalition” (POCC) criticizing some of the demands by the group of more than 240 students mentioned above.

President Eisgruber responded to a July 14 letter from 47 alumni (organized by me) urging him to speak out against (not to discipline) the anonymous students who had harassed the rising sophomore by stating that these attacks were protected by Princeton’s Chicago Principles regulation. This despite the fact that the Chicago Principles contain an exception for “harassment” and an explicit Princeton rule  prohibiting “abusive and harassing behavior.” In addition, a low-level company employee cancelled an interview for an internship with the student, citing the POCC letter. President Eisgruber stated that he would not address that issue. The company, after receiving a draft of the alumni letter protesting its action, said the interview cancellation had been an unauthorized mistake.

The University Administration’s responses to such events are seen by some as reflecting the enormous pressure from some student and faculty groups to apply a de facto ideological double standard on free speech matters. It is my hope that Princetonians for Free Speech will shine a light on controversies of this kind and bring the views of alumni, students, and faculty who support free speech and oppose double standards to the attention of all concerned.