By Stuart Taylor, Jr. and Edward L. Yingling, Co-founders of Princetonians for Free Speech
President Eisgruber’s letter to the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) seeks, unpersuasively, to drape in the mantle of free speech and academic freedom his refusal to delete from Princeton’s website his administration’s smears of Professor Joshua Katz as a racist. Eisgruber does so, insulting the AFA in the process (and the hundreds of distinguished faculty members from all over the country who make up the AFA), by saying the AFA is asking him to “censor” the attack on Katz in the University’s “To Be Known and Heard” presentation.
Eisgruber flings variants of the word “censor” at the AFA a remarkable seven times in his three-page letter. But seven repetitions of a transparently bogus accusation do not make it true. Eisgruber tries to redefine the issue as involving the efforts of administrators acting in their individual capacities. He seeks desperately to hide the fact that what the AFA wants the University to take down from its official website is an attack on Katz that Eisgruber subordinates, in their official capacities, – that is, the University itself -- put on the website more than a year ago.
For the reasons stated below, anyone viewing the website would think, correctly, it is from the University. The entire entering class, which was shown the presentation during orientation, would certainly have thought that this was Princeton’s official message, and that the attacks on Katz did not come from “University staff members enjoy[ing] free speech rights” as individuals, as Eisgruber claims, but rather from all the departments and offices listed on it.
Consider these facts:
--The presentation says explicitly that it was sponsored by two Princeton entities, the Carl A. Fields Center and the Office of Wintersession and Campus Engagement, and was co-sponsored by seven other offices and departments, including the Office of the Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity and the Office of the Vice President for Campus Life.
--It was introduced with great fanfare to the entire Princeton community in January 2021 by the leaders of ten different departments and offices.
--It was placed on the official Princeton website in January 2021 by Princeton officials and remains there to this day.
--In March 2021 there was another presentation of it to the Princeton community by the Carl A. Fields Center and the Office of Wintersession and Campus Engagement.
--In August 2021 it was shown to the entire entering class as a central part of orientation, where it was also the subject of breakout sessions run by students.
---It contains the trademark of Princeton University and states that it is copyrighted by the "Trustees of Princeton University." Under Princeton's official guidelines, "Use of the University’s … trademarks symbolizes authority to conduct such activities on behalf of the institution.”
Nowhere in the website presentation are individuals involved in its production named. It is clear that it is being presented by multiple departments and offices of the University, not by individuals. We say, again, that anyone looking at it would think it was being presented by the University, and we know that any court would find it is a product of the University itself.
In that regard, Princeton’s leadership should look at a very recent court decision in a high-profile case involving Oberlin College. Indeed, the continuing roles of Princeton University and its administrators in repeating and amplifying the smears of Katz as a racist sound very much like the roles of Oberlin College administrators in aiding and abetting a few years ago defamatory claims by students that Gibson’s Bakery, near the campus, had a history of “racial profiling and discrimination.” Those actions by the college led to the March 31, 2022 decision by a unanimous three-judge panel of the Ohio Court of Appeals, in Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College, upholding a lower court’s award to the bakery of $25 million in damages and $6.2 million in attorney’s fees for libel, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and intentional interference with a business relationship. In the Oberlin case, it was largely the action of one individual administrator, the dean of students, that led to the judgement against Oberlin. At Princeton it is worse: It involves multiple departments and offices, and the trademark and copyright of the University are on the website.
As the AFA made explicit in its letter, nobody is proposing to prevent Princeton faculty members or administrators from attacking anyone they choose, as Eisgruber implies the AFA is proposing. They will remain free to do so in their personal capacities on websites, in op-eds, in letters to the editor, in speeches, in broadcast appearances, in class, on picket lines, or in other ways. But it is a misuse of Princeton University’s website and other Princeton resources to amplify attacks by University offices on one of its own professors.
In addition, “To Be Known and Heard” is utterly one-sided. Its discussion of Katz is all smear. The Eisgruber administration offered neither Katz nor anyone else an opportunity to respond. By putting one-sided attacks on the website in the first place and keeping them there for more than a year without allowing any response defending Katz, Eisgruber’s administration has made the University complicit in the attacks.
So let us summarize the situation at Princeton resulting from its administrators’ actions and the Eisgruber letter to the AFA. As things stand, if a student or faculty member says or writes something that offends the orthodoxy at Princeton – and even if Eisgruber, disingenuously, says it is protected speech -- multiple departments of the university are free to launch an attack on that person before the entire Princeton community, an attack so vicious in its name-calling that the student or faculty member may be forced to leave Princeton. If asked, Eisgruber will validate the attack, claiming he is defending free speech, even though that attack, like those shouting down a speaker, in fact kills free speech on campus. And the clear and overwhelming message is that if you say what you think at Princeton, you can be ruined.
All this has now been put before the Princeton Board of Trustees by strong letters from Princetonians for Free Speech, the AFA, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). Meanwhile, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has also assailed Princeton’s attack on free speech. Thus, the three most respected national campus free speech groups have strongly criticized Princeton in this case. It is unprecedented for all three to criticize the same university in this manner.
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