Exposing the Attempt to Whitewash What Happened, Pt. 2 of 3

April 07, 2022 7 min read

Article #2 on the Eisgruber letter

By Edward L. Yingling and Stuart Taylor, Jr., Co-founders of Princetonians for Free Speech

In our first article on President Eisgruber’s March 31 letter to the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), we discussed how his failure to address an official, but nonpublic, opinion by his administration has left the Princeton rule on free speech eviscerated. In this article, we discuss Eisgruber’s use of grossly misleading characterizations of events and statements to whitewash the severity of the University’s attacks on Professor Joshua Katz. 

Let us begin with this central assertion in Eisgruber’s letter: “Your [the AFA’s] allegation of ‘systemic denunciation’ by University offices, however, seems to depend entirely on a single instance of speech, the ‘To be Known and Heard’ website.” The AFA’s allegation depends on no such thing. No one reading the AFA letter could possibly draw the conclusion that AFA’s allegation is based on a “single instance of speech.” 

A quick review of the history will demonstrate the falsity of this “single instance” characterization. From the very beginning, the administration mishandled its response to the controversy over Katz’s now-famous article in Quillette. Eisgruber began in July 2020 by condemning a Katz statement about the Black Justice League in that article. He had a right to do so. But at the same time, a University spokesman said that Princeton “would be looking into the matter.” The AFA’s March 27, 2022 letter to Eisgruber correctly characterized this as meaning that Katz “would be investigated for potential disciplinary action.” Eisgruber’s letter retorted, “That is untrue.”

This was a revealingly petty quibble. “Looking into” is synonymous with “investigating.”  Eisgruber added that all that the spokesman meant was that the University would be “analyzing whether the comments at issue fell within one of the exceptions [from protection] enumerated” in the free speech rule; but Eisgruber himself could easily have determined in a matter of minutes that the answer was no and that Katz’s article was protected speech. So why did Eisgruber leave the spokesman’s “looking into” threat hanging over Katz for more than seven days before saying what was obvious from the start?

When the president of a university condemns a professor’s statement and the president’s spokesman says the University will be “looking into” it, the message heard by faculty is that this is a threat -- chilling to free speech, and certainly very scary for the professor involved. There are a number of widely known cases in recent years of professors being investigated for their speech and having their lives ruined, even in cases in which they were completely exonerated. 

About the same time as the spokesman’s “looking into” statement, professors in the Princeton Classics Department strongly assailed Katz’s Quillette language. Under the free speech rule, they had the right to do so. However, the Classics Department, itself, also issued a statement criticizing the language. When a university department acts in its official capacity, it is, in effect, the university that is acting, as any court of law would hold. So, at this point, the University, itself, had already condemned Katz.

Eisgruber’s “single instance” language might mislead readers into thinking that the “To be Known and Heard” presentation, with its vicious attack on Professor Katz, was shown only once. But in fact, it was placed on the official Princeton University website for all to see; was announced in January 2021 with great fanfare by ten Princeton departments and offices to the entire Princeton community; and was touted by University officials in March 2021, at an event held by the Carl A. Fields Center and the Office of Wintersession and Campus Support, both of them official Princeton entities.

Worst of all, in August 2021 “To be Known and Heard” was presented to Princeton’s entire entering class at their orientation. Eisgruber tries to dismiss this fact by claiming that the “focus” of the orientation “was a recorded faculty panel” commenting on the presentation and that no one on that panel mentioned the part of the website that attacked Katz. But try as he might, Eisgruber cannot negate the fact that this official Princeton presentation, which was introduced by a dean and the subject of student discussion groups afterwards, told the entire entering class that Professor Katz is a racist. That damning portrayal has remained on the University’s official website every day for well over a year. In effect, the University is attacking Katz every day. For Eisgruber to call that “a single instance” is highly misleading. 

And as we will demonstrate in our next article, no matter how Eisgruber tries to mischaracterize the matter, this was more than a series of attacks by individuals. It was an official presentation of the University, bearing Princeton’s copyright and trademark. And there can be no doubt that all the students just entering Princeton took this as a presentation by the Universty itself.

In his letter to AFA, Eisgruber says: “If the website had engaged in name-calling or made derogatory comments about Dr. Katz, I would regard it as inconsistent with University values.”  Keep in mind the context: The section on Katz was in a chapter about racist speech, using examples that clearly involved racism, such as a speech by William Shockley, widely considered to be a racist, and the use of black face in Triangle shows.

Here is direct language about Katz used in this context in this official Princeton University presentation:

Katz’s views are “fundamentally incompatible with our mission and values as educators.”

Katz “seems not to regard people like me [a black professor] as essential features, or persons, of Princeton.”

“[R]ace baiting, disguised as free speech, can be deadly.” [Emphasis in original]

How, then, can Eisgruber claim that the official Princeton website does not make “derogatory” comments about Katz? Accusing him of “race baiting” is not derogatory? Eisgruber claims that these comments do not count because they are quotations of individuals. In his letter, he makes this incredible statement: “Aside from reporting these quotations, the website’s authors do not denounce or characterize Dr. Katz’s comments in any way.” So, University administrators are now authorized viciously to attack and to try to ruin the life of anyone they choose to target for his or her speech as long as the administrators do it by using attack quotes by individuals.

Really, President Eisgruber? 

When the website was presented to the entire Princeton community, the quote from Katz was doctored in a highly misleading way by deleting an important phrase without inserting an ellipsis to show the deletion. Professor Katz’s article stated his belief that the Black Justice League had “made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands.” The website authors deleted “(including the many black students).” This falsification of the Katz quote cannot have been a mistake or done for space reasons. There are at least six lines of blank space on the website below the Katz quote. It was done on purpose, and we are quite certain it was done because the empathy shown for black students by Katz in the deleted language undermined the narrative of the attack on Katz as a racist. It was not corrected until many months later.

In the words of the AFA, “Such a misrepresentation of a quote is, of course, inconsistent with the university’s own requirements regarding academic dishonesty and a troubling model to hold up to incoming students at orientation. We are pleased to see that the quote has been corrected, but are disappointed that the correction was made through a stealth edit with no acknowledgement of the error and certainly with no apology to Professor Katz for the misrepresentation of his writing.”

Eisgruber says in response: “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.” This, again, is whitewashing what happened. The ethical obligation was to avoid falsifying the quote in the first place. And the authors should get no credit for fixing it after they were publicly shamed into doing so many months later.

Eisgruber says at the beginning of his letter to the AFA: “I share your deep regard for free speech and academic freedom.” But actions speak louder than words. University administrators and others have conducted an on-going attack on a professor, ignoring the University’s rule on free speech, over what Eisgurber stated was protected speech. When this was pointed out to him, not only by the AFA, but also by two other leading national free speech groups and by PFS, he attempted to whitewash what his subordinates has done, as demonstrated above. In our previous article, we explained how he has let stand an interpretation of the University’s free speech rule that eviscerates it. In our next article, we will show how he has tried to deny ample proof that it is the University, itself, that is attacking Katz.

Unfortunately, there are other examples of how free speech is dying at Princeton. To see some of them, please go to the free speech timeline on our website. For one, it is noteworthy that the entire chapter headed “Race and Free Speech” in “To Be Known and Heard” derides free speech as a cover for racist statements. Multiple examples are given of “race baiting, disguised as free speech.” During the panel discussion that Eisgruber cites, a Classics professor directly attacked as “masculinized bravado” the free speech of people who don’t embrace his notion of “anti-racist social justice.” This was all that the new students heard on the topic. Again, a new student would naturally think that the orientation reflected the views of the University. There was not one word about the benefits of free speech or Princeton’s own rule protecting it. Given the importance of the topic, every orientation should discuss the free speech rule extensively. 

The Academic Freedom Alliance was created last year with the leadership of Princeton professors to help protect free speech and academic freedom and has grown rapidly. It is nonpartisan and has in its membership hundreds of distinguished faculty members from universities all over the country and across the political spectrum. For Eisgruber to respond as he did to the AFA’s seriously and carefully presented concerns is a blot on Princeton.

President Eisgruber has now made it clear that he will not protect free speech, despite his occasional pretensions that he will. We ask, again, where is the Board of Trustees? 

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