Eisgruber’s Claim that Free Speech Rule Protects His Subordinates’ Rights to Use Princeton’s Website and Freshman Orientation to Smear Professors as Racists

By Stuart Taylor, Jr. and Edward Yingling
August 4, 2022

In short emails in July, Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber spurned a distinguished professor's plea to take seriously the letter and spirit of Princeton's free speech rule. Instead Eisgruber locked himself with pigheaded finality into his indefensible contention that the rule itself empowers his subordinates to use Princeton's website and other considerable resources dishonestly to smear as racist any professor they decide to target anonymously, if they wish -- even when the specific statement targeted has been labeled as protected speech by Eisgruber himself.

In the process, Eisgruber’s dismissive emails to Professor Sergiu Klainerman, defending anonymous subordinates’ attacks on recently fired Professor Joshua Katz, also gave the back of his hand to the important faculty Committee on Conference and Faculty Appeal’s unanimous finding that the subordinates had violated the free speech rule. His email did not even address specific findings in the committee’s detailed analysis, including the fact that the Katz quote had been intentionally doctored. 

Eisgruber's email also implicitly slammed the door on the hope expressed by Professor Robert P. George that "a proper understanding of what is and isn’t protected speech under university policies will guide [President Eisgruber] toward an appreciation of the injustice done to Joshua Katz” by the subordinates’ attacks on a 2020 Katz article.

Eisgruber even left in place, and thus implicitly ratified, the absurd ruling by Vice Provost Michele Minter, in consultation with then Vice President for Human Resources Lianne Sullivan-Crowley, that the attacks on Katz were not official University pronouncements and that the free speech rule protects speakers from being harassed only if the harassment is “based on a protected characteristic” of the speaker (such as race, creed, color, or sex).

This perverse Minter-Crowley misinterpretation deliberately eviscerated the rule’s clear language and intent and thereby removed protection from harassment or abuse for most types of speech, just as Eisgruber’s own perverse misinterpretation gives his subordinates open season to smear anyone they choose using university resources to do so. With this interpretation of the rule, Princeton can no longer legitimately claim that it has a rule that protects free speech. It does not.

Eisgruber’s misinterpretations of the free speech rule began with his March 31, 2022 letter rejecting Princeton Professor Keith Whittington’s criticisms on behalf of the highly-regarded Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) of the attacks on Katz.

Like his July emails to Klainerman, Eisgruber’s letter to Whittington claimed that his subordinates’ attacks were protected from any discipline by Princeton’s free speech rule, University-wide Regulation 1.1.3. He called the subordinates “University staff members enjoy[ing] free speech rights” when in fact they were engaging in character assassination in the name of the University.

On this basis, Eisgruber refused the AFA’s request that Princeton delete from its official website -- or “censor,” as he insultingly suggested the AFA wanted -- a presentation including his administration’s smears of Katz as a racist. These smears were shown to the entire entering undergraduate class during its mandatory orientation and are still on the website.

The March 31 letter also included a claim that the subordinates' doctoring of a published Katz quote to reinforce the portrayal of him as a racist was a mere innocent “error,” one that was only cured a month after being shown to the entire entering class when it was corrected without apology or confession of error.

We have detailed our criticisms of Eisgruber’s letter to AFA in three previous articles. Our criticisms are very similar to those made by the above-mentioned faculty appeal committee as well as the nation’s three leading campus free speech groups: the AFA, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).

The faculty appeal committee’s April 2022 advisory report upheld Klainerman’s appeal from the Minter-Crowley ruling, which had cursorily dismissed a complaint by him and seven faculty colleagues requesting an investigation by the University into the smearing by unidentified Princeton diversity bureaucrats of Katz as a racist on the official website, in the 2021 orientation shown to the entire entering class, and elsewhere.

The committee’s report also disagreed implicitly but forcefully with Eisgruber’s strained interpretation of Princeton’s free-speech rule as protecting his subordinates’ attacks on Katz for writing his article. As it noted, the free speech rule in fact explicitly denies its protection to anyone and everyone whose speech “falsely defames a specific individual” or “constitutes . . . harassment.” The University was doing both by authorizing the dishonest smearing of Katz by still-unidentified bureaucrats.

Eisgruber’s interpretation purposely ignores the fact that the unnamed subordinates were not just speaking (anonymously) for themselves. They were speaking in the name of the University and using the considerable resources of the University. The departments that produced the attacks had their names on the presentation. The language attacking Katz must have been approved by high-ranking officials. Could any administrator publish attacks on a faculty member anonymously on the official website in the name of the University and with the University’s copyright and trademark without the approval of high-ranking officials? Of course not. The faculty appeal committee recommended an investigation.  It is clear that the investigation would show that the attack on Katz was approved by high-ranking officials. So, we surmise, they orchestrated a coverup. 

The faculty appeal committee also:

--Agreed that the “inappropriate” dismissal letter from Vice Provost Minter did not adequately address Professor Klainerman’s complaint, was contrary to University policies, and raised issues that should be investigated.

--Firmly rejected the amazing Minter-Crowley contention that the attacks on Katz, which were part of a presentation named “To Be Known and Heard” on Princeton’s history of racism, were not part of “an official University document.” As noted, this was a presentation by multiple departments and offices of the University; it bears Princeton’s copyright and trademark.

--Rejected as unreasonable the Minter-Crowley claim that the free speech rule prohibits only harassment directed at a person based on a protected characteristic, such as race, and ruled that University harassment policy applies to all members of the University and is not limited to harassment based on the possession of a protected characteristic.

--Spurned the novel and strange Minter-Crowley ruling that “our assessment rightly does not consider violations of law, including defamation.”

--Assailed the equally strange Minter-Crowley assertion that it was not “misleading or dishonest” for Eisgruber subordinates surreptitiously to delete an important phrase from a quotation of Katz’s article. The committee added that the deletion, which was not signaled by an ellipsis, was apparently designed to reinforce the website’s implicit argument that the quotation showed Katz to be racist. This despite Eisgruber’s implausible implication that this fraudulent deletion, in apparent violation of university rules on dishonesty, was an inadvertent “error.”

In a statement last March, 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.”

Eisgruber’s subsequent March 31 letter to the AFA, which contained numerous distortions, and now his curt dismissal of Princeton’s own faculty appeal committee in the July emails to Professor Klainerman make Shibley’s statement all the more true.

Stuart Taylor, Jr. and Edward Yingling are the co-founders of Princetonians for Free Speech.