Response to Keith Whittington and the Academic Freedom Alliance

March 31, 2022

Professor Keith E. Whittington

William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics

001 Fisher Hall

Princeton University


Dear Keith,

            Thank you for your public letter, sent on behalf of the Academic Freedom Alliance, about the “To Be Known and Heard” website.  I share your deep regard for free speech and academic freedom.  I am 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.  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.

            Let me explain the basis for my concerns.  Your letter accuses University offices of “systematically denouncing” a faculty member on the basis of his “heterodox” opinions.  I agree with you in principle that such a campaign of “systematic denunciation,” if it existed, could interfere with the climate of vigorous debate to which this University is committed.  If such a campaign were conducted by a University office, I would intervene to stop it.

            Your allegation of “systematic denunciation” by University offices, however, seems to depend entirely on a single instance of speech, the “To Be Known and Heard” website.  (You also reference an orientation event for the Class of 2025 overseen in part by the Carl A. Fields Center.  The focus of that event and the accompanying student-led discussions was a recorded faculty panel commenting on aspects of the virtual gallery.  None of the faculty members on the panel mentioned either Dr. Katz or the portion of the website dealing with his speech.)

            Are you asking that I censor the website?  If so, I find that request troubling, and I would need to understand better how you reconcile it with the principles of academic freedom and free speech that you champion.  I am certain that you would agree that, on a University campus, censorship, including via the compelled removal of information from a website, is a strongly disfavored response to controversial speech.  We expect those who disagree to answer instead with arguments of their own.

            In this case, as you point out, the website was created and is maintained by University departments, including the Carl A. Fields Center and the Office of Wintersession and Campus Engagement.  To be sure, speech that comes from University offices is properly subject to more control from the central administration than is faculty and student speech.  We insist, for example, that speech from University offices be factually accurate, respectful of University values, and consistent with the mission and responsibilities of the offices authoring it.  Within these and other relevant constraints, however, University staff members enjoy free speech rights along with other members of our community, including the protections of academic freedom when the staff members engage in teaching activity as part of their University job.

            The “To Be Known and Heard” website consists of teaching material originally prepared for and used in a Wintersession program.  It states that its purpose is to be a “dynamic educational resource” that responds to “students’ expressed desire to learn about the racial history of Princeton.”  The creation of this material is clearly consistent with the mission and responsibilities of the Carl A. Fields Center, which is charged with “empower[ing] members of the University community as they seek to learn about self, understand the breadth of cultural and social differences among us, and build the skills needed to create and lead a more just world.”

            If I understand your letter correctly, it suggests that I should nevertheless censor such a site because it “denounce[s] a member of the university’s faculty.”  If so, much rests on the concept of “denunciation,” since without it you would simply be asking me to censor speech that some find disagreeable.  I accordingly believe it important to lay out what the website actually says.

            The material on Dr. Katz appears in a portion of the website titled “Race and Free Speech.”  That section begins by stating:

            Throughout its history, Princeton has grappled with what crosses the “line” between free
            speech and freedom of expression, and racist statements and actions.

It then presents several illustrations of this issue, including five examples from the last decade related to student protest, race, and free speech.  One of those five examples involves Dr. Katz’s comments from the summer of 2020, when he characterized some recently graduated Black student activists as members of a “small local terrorist organization” and used other highly inflammatory language to describe their behavior.

            The website includes a citation and link to Dr. Katz’s article, quotes the comments I’ve described above, and then quotes critical replies from two professors and from me, as well as part of a statement made by the Classics department.  Aside from reporting these quotations, the website’s authors do not denounce or characterize Dr. Katz’s comments in any way.  The presentation of the controversy about Dr. Katz’s remarks is consistent in style and content with the website’s treatment of other controversies not involving him.

            Your letter states that “it is hard to see the actions of the Carl Fields Center as anything other than ongoing retaliation for Professor Katz’s speech.”  I do not understand the basis for this claim.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine how the website could have covered recent controversies about race, free speech, and student protest at Princeton without mentioning the exchange between Dr. Katz and his critics.  Given the extensive attention to the controversy, on campus and nationally, good reasons existed for the authors to include it alongside the other examples described in their website.

            If the website had engaged in name-calling or made derogatory comments about Dr. Katz, I would regard it as inconsistent with University values.  Because it is authored by University offices, not by individual members of our community, I would also insist that it be changed.  The website, however, does nothing of the kind.

            You note that the original version of the website omitted a parenthetical from Dr. Katz’s quote without inserting an ellipsis to mark the change.  I agree that the authors of the website had an ethical obligation to correct the error, as they did shortly after the matter was brought to the University’s attention.

            In that spirit, I would also like to point out what appear to be misstatements in your own letter, with the hope that they might likewise be corrected (or that you might supply relevant citations if I have overlooked materials to which you refer):

  • Your letter claims that a University spokesman stated that “Professor Katz would be investigated for potential disciplinary action.”  That is untrue.  The University spokesman said that Princeton would “be looking into the matter” but made no mention of any “investigation” or “disciplinary action.”  As you know from our prior correspondence in July 2020, the University looked into the matter by analyzing whether the comments at issue fell within one of the exceptions enumerated in the Statement on Freedom of Expression.  We confirmed that they did not, and that was the end of the matter.  No investigation was opened.
  • Your letter claims that “Professor Katz was singled out for criticism at a university-sponsored orientation event.”  As noted above, the event used the “To Be Known and Heard” website, but none of the speakers in the video presentation for the event mentioned Dr. Katz or the portion of the website that quoted his statements.
  • Your letter claims that I “denounced” Dr. Katz for “engaging in racist speech.”  That is not so:  I criticized his comments because they described peaceful protestors in terms that suggested they had behaved violently or unlawfully.

            In sum, while I agree with you about the need to preserve an atmosphere welcoming of vigorous disagreement and political controversy, I would like to understand whether you in fact seek censorship of factually accurate teaching materials produced in connection with a Wintersession offering and maintained by the Carl A. Fields Center for the purpose of educating students about the history of race, speech, and student protest at Princeton.  Given that those materials are themselves part of the ongoing debate at Princeton, and are presumptively protected by the same principles that protect Dr. Katz’s speech and your own, I think it important to be precise about the rationale for removing them (if that is the remedy you seek).  I would appreciate any clarification that you might provide; indeed, I would be more than happy to meet personally with you so that I can better understand your views.


Christopher L. Eisgruber