A professor at Princeton University has defended his right to call a Black student group a “small local terrorist organization” since he did so publicly in 2020. Now the professor’s supporters are asking the university to stop denouncing him, characterizing the lasting criticism as “ongoing retaliation.”
The university has refused to grant this request. And some see the request itself as hypocritical.
“It’s astonishing to me that a tenured professor who is not being punished in any way can receive an outpouring of support from numerous national groups demanding the intervention of top officials in order to banish mere criticism of a professor,” John Wilson, an independent scholar of free expression, wrote in a recent essay for the American Association of University Professors’ “Academe” blog. “And it’s remarkable how often ‘free speech’ can be invoked to demand censorship.”
Some history: in July 2020, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, classicist Joshua Katz, Cotsen Professor in the Humanities at Princeton, wrote a “declaration of independence” in Quillette. The essay criticized a series of demands that a group of Princeton professors had sent to senior administrators earlier that month, urging the university to be more actively antiracist. One specific faculty demand was that Princeton apologize to the Black Justice League, a former student group that in 2015 staged a sit-in in the president’s office, calling on Princeton to acknowledge the “racist legacy” of Woodrow Wilson (a significant figure in Princeton’s history), as well as for cultural competency training for all faculty and staff and a campus space dedicated to Black students.
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These faculty members said that Princeton hadn’t given the Black Justice League enough credit when it did eventually remove Wilson’s name from its public affairs school and a residential building after Floyd’s murder. But Katz, who is white, felt differently, writing that “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.”
Katz’s essay took aim at the faculty letter in general, but his commentary on the Black Justice League upset many at Princeton. President Christopher Eisgruber eventually addressed the controversy, saying in a statement, “While free speech permits students and faculty to make arguments that are bold, provocative, or even offensive, we all have an obligation to exercise that right responsibly. Joshua Katz has failed to do so, and I object personally and strongly to his false description of a Princeton student group as a ‘local terrorist organization.’”
Eisgruber accused Katz of ignoring “the critical distinction between lawful protest and unlawful violence,” and a university spokesperson reportedly said that the university was looking into the matter.
Princeton’s statements prompted free speech advocates such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to demand that it not investigate or punish Katz for exercising this right to free expression.
Katz was never investigated or punished, and Princeton has a firm free speech policy that resembles the University of Chicago’s more-speech-is-better-speech approach. But Katz’s supporters say that he’s endured nearly two years’ worth of retaliation for his comments, anyway, via a website.
To Be Known and Heard
Which website? In October, eight faculty members at Princeton reportedly filed an internal complaint that accused the university of trying to portray Katz as a racist, via a university-sponsored online project called “To Be Known and Heard: Systemic Racism at Princeton University.” The site, which is led by the university’s Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding and Office of Wintersession and Campus Engagement, and which has been featured in student orientation sessions, includes Katz’s Black Justice League statement within a larger racial history of the university.
Katz’s supporters say students shouldn’t be introduced to a sitting professor this way, and that an earlier version of the website included an edited version of what he said about the Black Justice League group with no note that it had been changed. (The early version excluded Katz’s reference to “the many black students” who didn’t agree with the student activists’ demands, and Katz’s supporters say this was a deliberate choice designed to make him look worse.)
“We demand an investigation into who doctored Prof. Katz’s quote and who edited and posted the page without identifying and correcting that error,” the eight professors wrote in their complaint. “Further, we demand an investigation into how the university decided to devote an entire feature on an official university website to demonizing a sitting professor, through the use of false and misleading information, for expressing views that were out of step with the official university orthodoxy.”
Princeton’s formal response to the complaint said, in part, that the website wasn’t an official university document—a position that Katz’s supporters said was ridiculous. Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, for instance, wrote to Princeton to say that the university had put 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.” And Robert Shibley, executive director of FIRE, said in a separate statement that 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.”
Keith Whittington, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton and chair of the academic committee of the Academic Freedom Alliance, wrote to Eisgruber, recently as well, saying something similar: “It is hard to see the actions of the Carl Fields Center as anything other than ongoing retaliation for Professor Katz’s speech.”
For university officials “in their individual capacities to sharply criticize a professor for his speech is one thing,” Whittington continued. “For the administration to memorialize criticism and highlight it as the introduction of every student to the university is something else. We are not aware of any other example of a university systematically denouncing a sitting member of its own faculty in such a way. It is not an example that should be followed or repeated if universities are to remain vibrant centers of intellectual freedom.”
Eisgruber told the Academic Freedom Alliance in response that while he shared its “deep regard for free speech and academic freedom,” he was “concerned, however, that your letter appears to ask me to censor a website consisting of teaching materials prepared for a January 2021 Wintersession program and maintained on a university website for educational purposes.”
He added, “Given that the production and publication of teaching materials in general deserves protection under the principles of academic freedom and free speech, I am inclined to resist any suggestion of censorship.” (Eisgruber also denied that Katz had been singled out in any way in the student orientation, which involved a discussion of the “To Be Known and Heard” website.)
Katz did not respond to a request for comment about the matter, nor did the Carl A. Fields Center.
Wilson said in “Academe” that “Like Katz, I denounced the 2020 letter signed by numerous Princeton faculty because one proposal endangered academic freedom, and I would strongly denounce any effort to have Katz investigated or punished for his views. But Katz wasn’t punished. And that standard of free speech belongs to Katz’s critics as well as Katz himself.” As for the notion that Katz has experienced retaliation, Wilsons said that this “should only refer to some kind of official penalty. Criticism is not retaliation. Criticism may be unfair, but the response should be counterspeech, not censorship. Redefining criticism as retaliation creates the danger of seeking to end the retaliation by silencing the criticism.”