Editorial: "McCarthyism at the Daily Princetonian"

February 07, 2021 8 min read

By Edward L. Yingling, Secretary/Treasurer, and Stuart Taylor, Jr., President, Princetonians for Free Speech

McCarthyism: “The use of unfair investigatory or accusatory methods in order to suppress opposition.” American Heritage Dictionary.

On December 30, 2020, Jonathan Ort, the 144th Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Princetonian, asked that readers “hold us accountable” and “let us know . . . where we have fallen short.”

We now do what he requested. He and his colleagues are accountable for outrageous McCarthyism in their unprecedented investigation and hit piece on long-time Princeton Professor of Classics Joshua Katz, posted on February 4. 

The Daily Princetonian was founded in 1876 and is among the oldest college newspapers in the country.  It was, until now, a very well-regarded paper, with many famous people and distinguished journalists as alumni. But it has now betrayed its heritage and sunk into ideologically motivated character assassination designed to silence dissenters from campus orthodoxy.

The background on this matter dates to a July 4, 2020 “faculty letter,” signed by over 300 Princeton faculty and staff members, that made dozens of demands.  Some are controversial. For example, one called for differential pay according to race, which would be clearly illegal.

The most controversial demand called for Princeton to “[c]onstitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty,” with guidelines on “what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication [to] be authored by a faculty committee.”

Professor Katz sharply criticized this and certain other demands in a July 8, 2020 article in the web magazine Quillette, headlined “A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor.” 

His piece generated national publicity, in part because of harsh criticism by some faculty and students, especially of Katz’s reference to the campus “Black Justice League,” which had been inactive for several years, as “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.”


Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber joined in the criticism on July 12, saying that “I object personally and strongly to his false description of a Princeton student group as a ‘local terrorist organization’ ” and that Katz “has unfairly disparaged members of the Black Justice League” and “failed” in his “obligation to exercise [his free speech] right responsibly.” 

Although Katz’s article was on its face clearly protected by Princeton’s admirably robust free speech rules, the administration left a veiled threat to investigate and discipline him hanging for eight days before finally announcing on July 20 that there would be no further action against him.


The Daily Princetonian’s initial extensive coverage of the controversy at least quoted both sides.  But on November 8, 2020, under the headline “Princeton must act against racist speech,” the editorial board attacked as “just the latest in a long history of racism on campus” Katz’s use of the word “terrorist” to describe the Black Justice League’s treatment of other students. The same editorial also complained that the Princeton Administration had “refused to take meaningful action” against Katz and instead “trots out” its “hardline free speech policy” to “brush aside cases of racism.”

Both the initial “faculty letter” and the Katz Quillette article are clearly within the protected zone of free speech principles, and in particular of the “Chicago Principles” on free speech, which have been adopted by Princeton and over seventy other universities. And yet the Daily Princetonian editors, who should understand the importance of free speech, especially since it is the umbrella principle for freedom of the press, called for disciplining Katz for exercising his right.

The newspaper had apparently already set out on an extensive, seven-month investigation of Katz, which commenced within days of Katz’s July 8 Quillette article. The Daily Princetonian is no small operation; it has extensive resources and a large staff. According to the article, the investigation included interviewing at least 56 people, going through large numbers of emails, and reading through a multitude of Princeton documents, including tax-related filings of the professor. Such a massive investigation into the life of a professor was unprecedented.  

This after Katz had been at Princeton for twenty-two years, consistently winning absolutely stellar course evaluations and a number of major teaching awards, including in 2003, in his first term as an associate professor, the Princeton President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching and in 2008 the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa teaching award, the only teaching award at Princeton decided entirely by students.

There appears to have been no public controversy around Katz until his Quillette article. The reason that the campus newspaper singled out Katz is blindingly obvious. The Daily Princetonian wanted to punish Katz and to warn all others that they could face similar dragnets if they dare to express views that its editors find unacceptable.  

In its zeal to get Katz, the newspaper also threw away basic journalistic standards. For example, the article is filled with innuendo and anonymous sources. This practice has become regrettably common in journalism today, but the mass of anonymous hearsay and speculation and the paucity of factual evidence in the very long article is extraordinary. The woman with whom Katz is alleged to have had an inappropriate relationship refused to talk to the newspaper. The article names only one source on its core accusation, and that source’s statement, about events from  over twelve years ago, is hearsay, opinion, and conjecture.  So are the statements from a number of unnamed alumni.

Especially in the context of the strong reaction to the Katz article, readers have a right to assess for themselves whether sources’ statements may be driven by prejudice. But readers are denied essential information when almost all sources are unnamed. 

In fact, the second, and only other named source in the article saying negative things about Katz -- faulting Katz’ department and the university for giving him lead roles -- has a very clear bias. While the article notes that this person had “previously criticized” Katz, that hardly conveys her acrimony. Soon after Katz’s Quillette article, she tweeted that she was “disgusted” by its “racism.” Later she signed a letter to “denounce” him. 

No credible newspaper would, in our view, print an article with such a large number of unnamed   sources, filled with conjecture and innuendo. 

One of the authors of this editorial has spent more than forty years as a newspaper and magazine journalist, including eight years covering legal affairs and the Supreme Court for The New York Times. One thing he learned was that journalists have great power to destroy a person’s reputation, life and career, and that a core principle of good journalism is that this power should   never be abused – especially not to advance personal or ideological grudges. The authors and editors of this piece of character assassination are obviously ignorant of or indifferent to this core principle.

But it gets even worse. At the end of the article, in a highly unusual statement, the Daily Princetonian says: “If you have information relating to this story that you are willing to share … please contact us….”  In other words, after seven months of investigation, we are still hungry for more. We really want to destroy this guy so send us anything you might have or might have heard – embarrassing rumors, anonymous innuendoes, whatever.

Can anyone seriously believe it is a coincidence that -- while working on an editorial attacking Katz as a racist and complaining that the administration had refused to take action against him -- the newspaper was also devoting vast resources to investigating his personal life?

The message to any dissenter from the newspaper’s version of orthodoxy is: “If you dare raise your voice, we will investigate you thoroughly; and if you, like so many people, have secrets, we will first ruin you personally and then we will destroy your career.” It would take a very brave professor, or student, to run that risk.  Most will stay silent. Thus does free speech die at Princeton at the hands of its student newspaper.

If there is any other explanation for the Daily Princetonian’s lengthy attack, then the editors can cite other examples of spending seven months combing through professors’ lives, going back many years, to produce articles like this one. They could show how they have done the same to professors whose views they approve.

In the early 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy ran a campaign accusing numerous people, most of them falsely, of being communists, communist sympathizers, or homosexuals. When people tried to object, he threatened them and often went after them. He had the power to have them investigated. People were afraid to say anything.

Eventually, long after it should have happened, people began to speak out against McCarthy, and he overplayed his hand. The famous exchange that effectively ended his attacks can be found on YouTube in fuzzy black and white TV footage of the climactic Army-McCarthy hearings. One can feel the drama in the room when McCarthy tries to intimidate Joseph Welch, the lawyer for the Army, by attacking one of his young associates. McCarthy claimed that the associate had once belonged to a group that included communist sympathizers.

Addressing McCarthy slowly and directly, Welch interrupted the senator’s attack and said: "Have you no sense of decency …?  At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” 

We ask the editors of the Daily Princetonian the same question.


ADDENDUM:

After we had drafted this editorial, our attention was drawn to the memoir of Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a 2006 Princeton graduate who is now a fellow professor in the Princeton Classics Department with Professor Katz. Padilla was the subject of a favorable profile, dated February 2 of this year, in the New York Times Magazine. It was noted in that article that he was an organizer of the letter from over 300 faculty and staff at Princeton that Professor Katz criticized in his Quillette piece. Padilla also wrote to the Daily Princetonian a letter attacking Katz for “flagrant racism” in his Quillette article.

It is interesting to note that in the below passage of Padilla’s 2016 book, Undaunted: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, at page 220, Katz comes across not as a racist or an exploiter of students, but as an extraordinarily caring mentor to and supporter of a young undocumented immigrant of color, who went on to become a Princeton classics professor, like his mentor.
_____________ 

“While I raced to write second-semester papers, I became friendly with one of my classics professors, Joshua Katz. In the fall he’d allowed me to enroll in one of his graduate seminars.  Ever since, we’d been meeting once or twice a month for dinner at Forbes College, where he was an academic adviser. Since Katz was also the faculty adviser to all undergraduate classics majors, he became my first port of call for guidance on professors and classes once I officially declared my major. One afternoon in early May, we were in his office finishing up a conversation about my course selection for junior year.

 “ ‘Dan-el,’ ” he was asking, ‘have you thought about studying abroad? You’ve missed the deadlines for junior-year study abroad, obviously, but you’d be a great candidate for one of the postgraduate fellowships.’ 

“My heart began to pound. I’d been trying so hard not to think about the likely future consequences of not having papeles. Now Katz was putting me on the spot. Within seconds I felt what I never felt around my college friends: the compulsion to spill the beans on my undocumented woe.

“ ‘I can’t leave the United States, because’ – and boom! The story dropped like a ton of bricks in his East Pyne office.

“Katz was indignant.

“ ‘These laws make absolutely no sense! This situation must be so stressful for you. There has to be something the university can do for you! Do Dean Malkiel or President Tilghman know? They’re big fans of yours.’

“ ‘No,’ I replied, ‘I don’t think so.’

“ ‘You really should write to them. Please. I’m sure they’ll be glad to help. Just write to them. Promise me you will. If you’d like me to, I’ll be glad to put in a word for you.’ ”

Princetonians for Free Speech is a non-profit, organized by Princeton alumni, to support free speech and academic freedom at Princeton.


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