Is Free Speech Dying at Princeton? A Timeline

August 01, 2022 9 min read

James Madison, Princeton Class of 1771, wrote the First Amendment.
Princeton President Robert Goheen, in his Alumni Day address, said:


It is tempting, when we hear words like “free inquiry,” “open discussion,” or “the right to dissent,” to nod our heads sagely, sink back contentedly, and hope that discussion and dissent will proceed apace, but without disturbing our well-ordered lives. We too easily forget the setbacks, the struggles, the anguish, even the bloodshed, that over the centuries have established the legitimacy of dissent, including free speech and a free press. This slow, hard process of achievement and its vulnerability at any time are things we should not forget.

“In universities like this one, where today we enjoy so fully the freedom to search, to hear, to disagree, to test our ideas against others, we need be always aware that this freedom is ever on test. But it is no nervous, timorous recognition that is required. We put our chips with confidence on the University’s need to be a place for untrammeled, rational inquiry and debate — vigorously, even passionately pursued — a role that this University has carried since the days when John Witherspoon’s students were arguing the issues of the Revolutionary War. . . . . . . . These essential principles of free inquiry and rational discourse, which lie at the heart of any university worthy to bear the name, must be preserved.

The Princeton faculty voted to adopt a broad rule guaranteeing “all members of the university the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” Because the language had originated at the University of Chicago a few months before, it is called the “Chicago Principles.”
Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber sent all incoming freshman, as that year’s “Pre-read,” Politics Professor Keith Whittington’s Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech.
Oct 11, 2019
Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of Princeton’s James Madison Program, and Cornel West, Professor Emeritus in the Center for African-American Studies, spoke to freshmen and their parents at First-Year Families Weekend on “the Spirit of Truth Seeking.” The event was introduced by President Eisgruber, who praised West’s and George’s 2017 statement on the importance of free speech, “Truth-Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression.”
Jun 22, 2020
More than 240 students in the School of Public and International Affairs signed demands including “anti-racist training at least once per semester” for all faculty and staff.
Jun 30, 2020
22 student members of the pro-free-speech Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC), which was founded in 2015, publicly dissented in an open letter to Eisgruber from some of the June 22 demands.
Jul 2020
Other students mounted multiple social media attacks against POCC members, savaging one sophomore as a “racist,” a “Nazi,” and a “fascist” who should suffer “social ostracism.”
Jul 4, 2020
More than 300 faculty members and others signed an open letter with numerous controversial demands including formation of a faculty committee “to oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication,” as defined by the committee.
Jul 8, 2020
Classics Professor Joshua Katz wrote in Quillette that “plenty of the proposals in the [July 4 faculty letter] are ones I support,” but that “there are dozens of proposals that, if implemented, would lead to civil war on campus”; that at least one demand would give “extraordinarily privileged . . . Princeton professors extra perks for no reason other than their pigmentation” [which would violate federal civil rights law]; and that the proposed “racist behaviors” committee “would be a star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, punishment, suspension, even dismissal.” Katz also opposed a demand for a formal public University apology to the members of the then-dormant Black Justice League by calling the group “a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with the its members’ demands.” Many faculty members and students assailed Katz as racist, most fiercely for his use of the word “terrorist”.
Jul 12, 2020
Eisgruber assailed Katz for having “failed” in his “obligation to exercise [his free speech] right responsibly.” A University spokesperson added that the Administration “will be looking into the matter further.”
Jul 13, 2020
Classics Department Chair Michael Flower and the other department administrators condemned Katz’s description of the Black Justice League as a “terrorist organization,” calling Katz’s language “abhorrent” and “fundamentally incompatible with our mission and values as educators.” They did not mention Katz’s other points.
Jul 14, 2020
Some 50 alumni who had learned of the harassment of the POCC sophomore asked Eisgruber on July 14 to express public disapproval. He declined. Over the next few months, some of the same alumni founded Princetonians for Free Speech (PFS). Its mission is promoting free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity at Princeton and elsewhere.
Jul 20, 2020
Eisgruber announced that there would be no disciplinary action against Katz because Princeton’s policies “protect Katz’s freedom to say what he did” and universities must “remain steadfastly devoted to both free speech and inclusivity.”
Jul 22, 2020
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) announced its award to Professor Katz as a “2020 Hero of Intellectual Freedom,” saying that he “stood up alone against an agenda that could lock the university into patterns of illegal discrimination and oppressive control of research and publication.”
Nov 8, 2020
The Daily Princetonian assailed Princeton’s “hardline free speech policy” and demanded that it punish Professor Katz for what it mischaracterized as his “racist speech.”
Jan 18, 2021
Princeton’s Office of Wintersession and Campus Engagement and Carl A Fields Center unveiled the virtual gallery To Be Known and Heard: Systemic Racism and Princeton University, focusing on “the legacy of racism within the University’s history and present” and the “the reflections of roundtable discussion participants” with cosponsorship from eight other University entities.

It was, and is, dramatic and disturbing and presents many facts that should be known and discussed on campus. But it mainly presents an egregiously one-sided presentation on the history of racism at Princeton; exudes hostility to free speech as a tool of racists; falsely smears Professor Katz as a racist for writing the same words that Eisgruber had said were protected; and deliberately and dishonestly doctored a quote to reinforce the smear. (The doctoring was corrected months later.)
Feb 4, 2021
The Daily Princetonian, after an unprecedented, seven-month investigation of Katz’s life, began a sustained, McCarthyite attack on him for having an affair with a student more than a dozen years before. Katz admitted the affair publicly on February 19. He had admitted it to University investigators in 2018 and was suspended without pay for a year. PFS called the campus newspaper’s investigation and article “McCarthyist.”
Mar 8, 2021
More than 200 college and university faculty members across the United States launched the Academic Freedom Alliance, led by Princeton Professor Keith Whittington, to uphold “the principle of free speech in academia” by “promoting solidarity” and providing “legal support to certain faculty whose academic freedom is under attack.”
Aug 29, 2021
As a central part of freshman orientation, the 7-month-old, egregiously one-sided Known and Heard presentation on the history of racism at Princeton was shown to the entire entering class and introduced by a dean.

While portraying Professor Katz as a racist and free speech as a tool of racists, the orientation made no mention of Princeton’s own, robust free speech rule. It also featured a 52-minute “Orientation Video,” presented by the Office of Diversity & Inclusion, and what two professors publicly called “an utterly one-sided and negative picture of Princeton’s history” on race. All this “would leave many new students with the impression that Princeton is a particularly evil place,” PFS said in an editorial.

Princeton junior Myles McKnight later recalled the orientation in a National Review article: “At my own Princeton University, students are greeted at their very arrival on campus with a freshman-orientation program drenched in hypocrisy, double standards, and indoctrination à la Mao. . . . Students are coerced into confessing their sins — wealth, whiteness, and privilege — in front of thousands of kids they met just days before.”
Sep 21, 2021
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released a detailed survey ranking Princeton dead last for free speech in the Ivy League and a dismal 134th out of 159 institutions surveyed.
Oct 4, 2021
Eight distinguished Princeton professors, acting as whistleblowers, confidentially filed a formal complaint and letter with the University charging unidentified diversity bureaucrats with egregiously violating the University’s free expression and anti-harassment rules by falsely and dishonestly smearing Katz as a racist and “deliberately misquoting” him in the orientation presentation.

They demanded an investigation into “how the university decided to devote an entire feature on an official university website to demonizing a sitting professor, through the use of false and misleading information, for expressing views that were out of step with the official university orthodoxy.”
Oct 17, 2021
The founders of PFS and alumni groups from four other institutions announced in a Wall Street Journal op-ed the creation of the Alumni Free Speech Alliance, including alumni groups from five (now 12) institutions, which is becoming a national movement.
Oct 21, 2021
Professor Robert George’s James Madison Program hosted the speech by University of Chicago Professor Dorian Abbot that MIT had canceled because of his criticism in an unrelated article of racial preferences and actions by diversity, equity and inclusion offices.
Nov 19, 2021
Dean Amaney Jamal of the School of Public and International Affairs decried the jury’s acquittal of the Kyle Rittenhouse. The POCC criticized her for improperly speaking in her official capacity and thus pressuring students to fall in line. Eisgruber implausibly denied that she had spoken in her official capacity.
Dec 7, 2021
The Princeton administration spurned the eight professors’ whistleblowing complaint in a letter from Vice Provost Michele Minter that was so dishonest and outrageous that the eight denounced it to the university’s leadership “not only as incorrect but as in bad faith.”

The Minter Letter claimed that the freedom of expression rule protects speakers like Katz from being harassed or abused only if “based on a protected characteristic” of the speaker (such as race, creed, color, or sex). This gross and deliberate misinterpretation eviscerated the rule’s clear intent in order to negate protection from harassment or abuse for most types of speech.

The Minter letter was also contrary to Eisgruber’s admission that the exact same Katz language was protected by the freedom of expression rule. It absurdly claimed that the doctoring of Katz’s quote was not “misleading or dishonest” and that the website presentation’s attack on Katz was not “an official university document” – this despite the facts that it contains the Princeton shield, trademark, and copyright, which under Princeton’s own policy can legally be used only on official Princeton products, and was produced by two Princeton departments.
Dec 19, 2021
The eight professors appealed the Minter letter to Eisgruber. He referred the appeal to Dean of the Faculty Gene Jarrett, who rubber-stamped the disgraceful Minter letter. As one of the professors said in a letter to Princeton’s leadership, “The danger of retribution which affects all of us will have a pervasive chilling effect on free speech at Princeton.”
Jan 10, 2022
The James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions launched its Initiative on Freedom of Thought, Inquiry and Expression, co-directed by Professors Keith Whittington and Bernard Haykel.
Jan 11, 2022
After Princeton officials had invited for an April 19, 2021 panel on "Race, Speech, and the University" three leftist speakers whose published views on free speech are at odds with Princeton’s free speech rule, Anthony and McKnight wrote officials to “express our disappointment at the sparsity of ideological diversity on the panel” and request more diversity in the future. They were brushed off.
Feb 3, 2022
Abigail Anthony, who has won national ballet titles, wrote an article criticizing leaders of the Princeton University Ballet club for asserting that “ballet is rooted in white supremacy and perfectionism” which must be “decolonize[d]” even as “ballet remains an imperialist, colonialist, and white supremacist art form.” She said that these students “are simply mimicking our own university administrators” and that “no space, organization, or department is exempt from woke ideology masquerading as the requirements of virtue.”
Mar 5, 2022
An article in RealClearPolitics by PFS co-founders Edward Yingling and Stuart Taylor, Jr., headlined “How Princeton Eviscerated Its Free Speech Rule and Covered It Up,” which is also posted on the Princetonians for Free Speech website, documented in detail the violations of Princeton’s rules and the unethical actions that Princeton committed to cover up its persecution of Professor Katz. Two national free speech organizations -- and many others -- joined PFS in denouncing forcefully Princeton’s attacks on Professor Katz and on free speech.

In a letter to the Board of Trustees and to the leadership of Princeton, ACTA President Michael Poliakoff said this action “puts Princeton itself in the position of violating it own rules by severely harassing a member of the academic community whose speech the president declared to be protected.”

And in a statement, Robert Shibley, Executive Director of FIRE, said: "Princeton's absurd labeling of its slickly produced website insulting Professor Katz -- created at the behest of and sponsored by a half-dozen administrative offices, with its own subdomain on Princeton's site -- as not an ‘official University document’ shows that its pronouncements simply cannot be trusted. Faculty, students, and alumni should avoid putting much stock in Princeton's promises of free speech or of anything else as long as the university leadership is so obviously and blatantly willing to put politics over principle.”
Mar 15, 2022
PFS said in an editorial that it is the duty of the Board of Trustees to commission an investigation by a credible independent entity of the publicly documented violations free speech rule and unethical actions of Princeton administrators; that the Board should require that the Minter ruling, with its clear falsehoods including its misinterpretation of the free speech rule, be immediately withdrawn; that an apology should be issued to Professor Katz for the University’s attacks on him for his protected speech; that Princeton should institute an explicit program to educate about free speech and Princeton’s free speech rule, including during orientation; and that an ombudsperson position should be created devoted solely to issues and complaints related to free speech and academic freedom.

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