PFS Letter Calling on Trustees to Commission Investigation

March 15, 2022 6 min read

By Edward Yingling, Stuart Taylor Jr., and Todd Rulon-Miller

Dear Board Chair Sams:

We are writing on behalf of Princetonians for Free Speech (PFS) on a matter of utmost urgency. Princeton has now reached the point where free speech is no longer protected and where those who do try to exercise free speech can be viciously attacked with no consequences, and even attacked by the University itself. Princeton’s free speech rule (University-wide Regulation 1.1.3), after a recent official, nonpublic, and false interpretation, is a shell, basically meaningless. If Princeton’s Board of Trustees does not act immediately to investigate and reverse these actions, Princeton’s reputation will be in tatters, and deservedly so; and Princeton will no longer deserve the name “university.” 

PFS is a non-profit organization created by proud Princeton alumni to promote free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity at Princeton. These are core values of any university. The thousands of Princeton alumni and other members of the Princeton family who receive PFS updates and go to our website do so largely because they believe in these core values and want Princeton to carry on its role as a great university. Princeton’s future is in grave danger. Alumni who read that Princeton was ranked dead last in the Ivy League and 134th out of 159 colleges and universities in the most recent free speech survey conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education were appalled. Now the situation is much worse. 

The many alumni who support PFS are proud to be associated with the alma mater of James Madison, the author of the First Amendment. They cannot not sit quietly while Princeton becomes a place where free speech and academic freedom no longer exist.

The facts in this matter are fully laid out in an article we wrote that was posted on Real Clear Politics on March 5, 2022, and which can be found on the front page of our website, princetoniansforfreespeech.com. In summary, Princeton Professor Joshua Katz published an article in Quillette in July of 2020 that contained some controversial language. President Eisgruber at first assailed that language but then on July 20, 2020, stated, publicly and unequivocally, that it was protected by Princeton’s free speech rule. Yet despite that statement, Princeton administrators, beginning in January of last year, undertook a smear campaign on Princeton’s official website and elsewhere against Professor Katz over the exact same language, for the purpose of labeling him a racist. The smear campaign continues on the website to this day. Administrators even stooped so low as to doctor the quote from Professor Katz, deleting, without ellipsis, a key phrase that undermined their narrative. This attack clearly violated Princeton’s rule on free speech, as well as other rules. 

Then, when eight distinguished Princeton professors, acting as whistleblowers, filed a formal complaint about this smear campaign, administrators engaged in a cover-up by issuing a nonpublic ruling, signed by Michele Minter, Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity, rejecting the complaint. This ruling contains statements that are blatantly false. When this ruling was appealed to President Eisgruber, he sent it to Dean of Faculty, Gene Jarrett, who summarily upheld it. Therefore, this ruling is now an official ruling of the University. It sends a clear message: If anyone dares to say something against the campus orthodoxy, you can and will be attacked and harassed, and you will have no protection.

The ruling absurdly and falsely states that the presentation at the heart of the attack on Professor Katz – “To be Known and Heard: Systemic Racism and Princeton University” – is not “an official University document.” Yet the presentation says on its face it was produced by two Princeton departments; it was presented with great fanfare to the entire Princeton community in January, 2021, sponsored by ten department and offices of the University; it was placed on the Princeton official website, where it remains, by Princeton officials; in August, it was presented as a central part of the orientation to the entire entering class by a Princeton dean; and it contains the official trademark and copyright of Princeton. Under Princeton’s policies, “The use of the University’s … trademarks symbolizes authority to conduct such activities on behalf of the institution.”

Is the Board of Trustees going to let stand a ruling that permits administrators to launch an attack, using all the resources of the University, on students and faculty for speech protected by Princeton’s own rule and then claim it was not an official action?

The Minter ruling also held that the Katz language was not protected by the free speech rule or by Princeton’s rules protecting against punishment or mistreatment of people for their speech. The ruling did this by taking an extremely narrow definition of “harassment” from a completely different rule and wrongly applying it to the free speech rule; as a result, Professor Katz, or any faculty member or student, is protected from being abused or harassed for his or her speech only if that abuse is “based on a protected characteristic” of the speaker, such as race, creed, color, or sex. This absurd interpretation renders the free speech rule a shell. Any student or faculty member can now be bullied and harassed off the campus over the great majority of speech the rule is intended to protect, even over speech the president of the University says is protected.

Is the Board of Trustees going let stand an interpretation that guts the University’s free speech rule?

PFS is not alone in condemning these actions. Two leading national free speech groups – the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education – also condemned them in very strong language, cited in our article referenced above.

We also note that “To be Known and Heard” contains a presentation on free speech that clearly is designed to denigrate free speech and that conflicts with the language and spirit of the Princeton free speech rule. This was presented to the entire entering class, along with a video in which a Princeton professor directly attacks free speech. There was no discussion of the free speech rule, which is so important to the culture and atmosphere on campus today, in the entire orientation. The only presentation on free speech was negative. 

Does the Board of Trustees agree that all incoming students should be shown a presentation that denigrates free speech, purposefully leaving them with the impression that free speech will not be tolerated at Princeton, and that there should be no discussion of the University’s free speech rule?

The Board of Trustees must act. First, you must act because it is clear that free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity are dying at Princeton, and that this result is being aided and abetted by administrators who do not support these values. On our website there is a timeline, entitled “Is Free Speech Dying at Princeton?” which clearly demonstrates the grave threat to, and rapid deterioration of, free speech at Princeton.

You must also act because it is the duty of any board to investigate willful violations of its organization’s rules by high ranking officials of that organization. In this case, administrators willfully violated Princeton’s rules and then, when whistleblowers pointed out the violations, sought to cover them up with a ruling that is blatantly false. In the process, administrators have virtually nullified Princeton’s free speech rule. Since under these circumstances Princeton administrators cannot be trusted to investigate themselves, we believe it is the duty of the Board of Trustees to commission an investigation by a credible independent entity.  

In addition, we urge you to take the following important steps to restore free speech to the Princeton campus. You should have the Minter ruling, with its clear falsehoods, immediately withdrawn. You should repudiate the misinterpretation of the free speech rule in that ruling and restore the free speech rule in full. An apology should be issued to Professor Katz for the University’s attacks on him for his protected speech. Looking forward, there should be an explicit program at Princeton to educate about free speech and Princeton’s free speech rule, including during orientation. Finally, the reaction of Princeton administrators to the eight professors’ complaint demonstrates the need for an ombudsperson devoted solely to issues and complaints related to free speech and academic freedom.

The final sentence of Princeton’s free speech rule, quoted verbatim from the Chicago Principles on free speech, states: “The University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.” The University has failed completely to meet that “solemn responsibility.” In fact, the University has violated its own rule. Will you, the Board of Trustees now fulfill that “solemn responsibility?”

On behalf of many alumni who care about Princeton, we urge you to act for the sake of the University’s future.

Stuart Taylor, Jr. ’70, President
Edward Yingling ’70, Secretary
Todd Rulon-Miller ’73, Treasurer


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