An Eminent Civil Libertarian’s letter to President Eisgruber on "the Depth of my Disappointment"

April 5, 2022

Dear President Eisgruber,

You and I have never met. Nor are we likely to meet because it has been very rare that I attend my class reunions. However, I have followed your career as President of Princeton, because I read the Princeton Alumni Weekly (which is, of course, no longer published weekly). I also read The New York Times, which covers the news from major universities, including Princeton.

Before I get to the reason for my letter, please allow me to tell you something about myself.

I graduated from Princeton with the Class of 1964. I came from a family that could not afford to pay Princeton’s, nor any other college’s tuition and fees. I was the first member of my family to attend any college, much less Princeton. My father did not even graduate high school. Were it not for the Caine scholarship endowment, I would never have been able to attend Princeton.

I am a criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer who over the decades has done a lot of pro bono work, and hence I have not become wealthy, even though I graduated from Harvard Law School in 1967. Still, I have managed to make modest donations to Princeton every single year since I graduated.

In connection with my civil liberties work, I have represented many faculty members as well as students. Academic freedom and due process on campus is a specialty of mine. Indeed, in 1998 I co-authored, with Alan Charles Kors, my classmate at Princeton, a book entitled The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (The Free Press imprint of Simon & Schuster). (Kors is now a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania.) As a result of the publication of this book, Kors and I received many anguished requests for assistance, in the face of college administrators who were treating them unfairly.

And so the next step was for Kors and me to start a foundation to help deal with these problems. And so the following year we founded The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE (www.thefire.org). To this day, I remain on FIRE’s Board.

And I have yet another connection with Princeton. My late wife, the portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman, and I have contributed some of Elsa’s significant photographs to the Firestone Library. I am enclosing some correspondence between my wife and me, the assistant university librarian (dated 23 December 1975), and Joe Rothrock, curator of the Library’s graphic arts collection (dated 27 February 1976).

Therefore, as a loyal alumnus of Princeton, and as a civil libertarian, it is hard to imagine the depth of my disappointment in my alma mater under your presidency and, frankly, my disappointment in you. The things that you have done, and the things that you have allowed to happen on Princeton’s campus, would never have been done by Princeton’s president when I was there, Robert F. Goheen.

I should add that I am a member of the Academic Freedom Alliance, greatly admired by Stuart Taylor, Jr., and Edward Yingling who co-founded Alumni Free Speech Alliance. (I am copying Taylor and Yingling on this letter.) Hence, I am not the only alum who has been sorely disappointed with your administration. Rather than uphold the free speech, freedom of association, and due process rights of faculty members and students, you have done precisely the opposite.

For one thing, you have engaged in name-changing of every statue and facility named after Woodrow Wilson, who was President of Princeton before he was President of the United States. You have done this because it has been discovered that Wilson was a racist. And so, under your administration, facilities named after Wilson have been re-named after a black alumna, Mellody Hobson. This is particularly annoying to me, since when I arrived at Princeton, I refused to join an eating club. The eating clubs didn’t much like black people (of whom there were none in my class, and only one in the following class), but also didn’t favor Jews. (I am Jewish.) As a result, a few members of my class, along with some members of the class of 1963, formed The Woodrow Wilson Society, an eating facility that did not ask the race, the religion, nor the pedigree of those who preferred to avoid the Bicker process by taking their meals at an “anyone may join” eating facility. I find it very ironic that Princeton is now at war with the name Woodrow Wilson.

I should also add that I am very much opposed to the veritable orgy of name-changes and statue-removals infecting our nation’s campuses (including, alas, my alma mater). I am of the view that any nation, any state, any city or town, and indeed any college or university, should live in full knowledge of its past, without trying to air-brush that past. Indeed, as the great Spanish philosophy George Santayana has taught, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

All of this having been said, you cannot imagine how disappointed, and angry, I’ve been with your administration. In response to a letter to you from the Academic Freedom Alliance, you rebuffed the Alliance’s argument that the University should stop systematically denouncing Professor Joshua Katz for a 2020 article that you yourself had earlier admitted was protected by Princeton’s policy on free speech. In other words, the censorship under your administration is lawless; all of it violates Princeton’s own standards.

The message communicated to not only students, professors and alumni, but also to the nation, is that those who seek to exercise their rights to free speech on Princeton’s campus will be subject to retribution, rather than support, under your administration. All of this is extraordinarily disturbing and disappointing.

In conclusion, all I can say is that you are no Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. As you may or may not know, Holmes is widely considered to have created our modern understanding of the First Amendment. Justice Holmes witnessed the creation of the Espionage Act, which made it a crime to obstruct the draft or cause insubordination in the military. The following yea, Congress passed the Sedition Act, outlawing any speech that the authorities deemed “disloyal” or “scurrilous,” as well as any speech intended to encourage resistance to the war effort. Federal prosecutors vigorously enforced these anti-free speech laws, bringing some 2,000 indictments. Holmes began to question the constitutionality of these laws. He began to re-think the court’s approach to the First Amendment. He dissented in a case in which the Supreme Court upheld these anti-free speech laws, joined only by Justice Louis Brandeis. But eventually Holmes’ views on free speech prevailed, and today it is common to see both the Left and the Right of a bitterly-divided Supreme Court join together in a virtually unanimous support of free speech.

All I can say, President Eisgruber, is that you are no Oliver Wendell Holmes.

 

Sincerely (but disappointingly) yours,

 

Harvey A. Silverglate

Class of 1964

Cc: Stuart Taylor, Jr., Washington, DC

       Edward Yingling