Remarks at the Conference on Academic Freedom: Normative, Legal, and Empirical Perspectives

Oct. 2, 2023

Thank you for the opportunity to address this conference.  It is a pleasure to do so, for at least two reasons.  First, I am delighted to see and greet so many friends, including some from Princeton’s own faculty and some whom I have not seen in many years.  Second, the topic of this conference is urgent indeed, and I am heartened that the University Center for Human Values has launched this new initiative on academic freedom.

Academic institutions carry out a crucial function that makes them inherently vulnerable to attack.  As my predecessor William G. Bowen said almost forty years ago, the research university “stands … at a slight angle to the world.”[1]  Its truth-seeking mission entails that its members have not only the freedom, but indeed the responsibility, to criticize conventional wisdom, powerful people, and cherished beliefs.

It is therefore inevitable that—and now I quote again from President Bowen—“the University as an institution will enrage from time to time one or another powerful interest or constituency.”[2]  At least in current circumstances, I might modify President Bowen’s sentence to say simply, “it is inevitable that universities will enrage powerful interests and constituencies on a regular basis.”

Strong republics and wise leaders nevertheless cultivate outstanding research universities, along with other truth-seeking institutions, because they are essential to the advancement of knowledge and the protection of human rights.  Criticism is essential to improvement.

Nobody, however, likes being criticized, and the tolerance for free universities is therefore fragile even in the best of times—and these are not the best of times.

Though I applaud this conference’s international scope, I want to focus my attention on the problems that I know best, which are in the United States.  The online description for this conference begins by declaring that “Academic freedom is under threat in many parts of the world—including in at least parts of the United States.”[3]  I want to urge you to amend that sentence to omit the words “at least parts of,” because nobody should doubt that there are threats to academic freedom throughout the United States.

Sometimes these threats, I am sorry to say, come from failures of university administrators.[4]

The vast majority of threats, however, emerge, as one would expect, from external constituencies unhappy with the freedom that universities do and must allow their faculties.

Here at Princeton, we have during the last two months experienced a censorship campaign directed at an assistant professor in Near Eastern Studies whose syllabus for an advanced undergraduate seminar included a controversial book that commented at length on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The professor, her department chair, and I were targeted with hundreds of insulting and sometimes threatening emails.  The New York Post ran her picture along with accusations that she was promoting antisemitism.[5]  Two Israeli government officials and a United States congressman sent me letters demanding that Princeton cancel the course or remove the book from its reading list.  The president of the World Jewish Congress went further, calling for the University to fire the assistant professor and threatening to file lawsuits if he did not get his way.[6]

Academic freedom clearly protects a professor’s right to choose which books to assign, so long as they are germane to the topic of her course.  At Princeton, it was a straightforward decision to support the professor and uphold her rights.  We did so, and I used the occasion to reiterate Princeton’s commitment to academic freedom.[7]

I could not help but wonder, however, whether the decision might have been different at an institution with fewer resources to resist the pressure being applied by political officials, organized interest groups, and powerful individuals.

Moreover—and here is the point that I most want to stress—campaigns of this kind damage academic freedom even when universities do the right thing and hold the line.  The onslaught of hostile publicity and emails is unpleasant at best, and terrifying at worst, for anyone to endure.  It can chill the willingness of a professor to continue with a course or to assign controversial material.

These risks were well illuminated by a New York Times article this summer documenting the ordeal of a University of Chicago lecturer targeted by online trolls after she dared to teach an undergraduate seminar entitled, “The Problem of Whiteness.”  The University of Chicago has a firm commitment to academic freedom.  Despite the University’s support, however, the lecturer had first to postpone her course for a quarter and then teach it at an undisclosed location with exceptional security measures.[8]

Such stories are far more common than most people suppose.  Indeed, I would expect that most if not all leading American research universities must now regularly protect and support professors in the face of threats addressed to them because of what they teach or publish.  At Princeton, this happens annually.

I want to repeat the statement, since your conference materials suggest that academic freedom may be under threat only in some parts of the United States:  I believe that most if not all leading American research universities must now regularly protect and support professors in the face of threats addressed to them because of what they teach or publish.

Unlike more familiar attacks upon academic freedom, the intimidation campaigns being waged against faculty members emanate neither from state officials nor from university administrators.  They are coercive nonetheless, and they are often the product of organized, well-financed political efforts.[9]

This despicable and dangerous bullying ought to concern every person who cares about academic freedom in this country.

I hope that, as the University Center for Human Values pursues its initiative on academic freedom, it will focus attention on this new threat to academic freedom along with those that come from state actors or university administrators.

I will close by expressing once again my gratitude to all of you for the attention that you are devoting to academic freedom.  Academic freedom is essential to the health of our universities and our societies, and it urgently requires our support.  Thank you for the project that you have undertaken and for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you this afternoon.

[1] William G. Bowen, “Opening Exercises Address:  At a Slight Angle to the World,” September 1985, reprinted in William G. Bowen, Ever the Teacher 5, 12 (Princeton:  Princeton University Press 1987).

[2] Id. At 11.


[4] See, e.g., Ryan Quinn, “Report:  Adjunct Who Showed Images of Prophet Was ‘Vilified,’” Inside Higher Education (May 22, 2023).

[5] Jon Levine, “Princeton Course Will Teach Israelis ‘Maim’ Palestinians for Profit,” New York Post (August 12, 2023).

[6] Ibid. and Ronald Lauder, “Jew-Hatred is Poisoning America’s Campuses,” New York Post (September 12, 2023).


[8] Vimal Patel, “At UChicago, a Debate Over Free Speech and Cyberbullying,” New York Times (July 3, 2023, updated July 5, 2023).

[9] Don Moynihan, “How the Campus Outrage Sausage is Made,” Substack (March 7, 2023),