On July 12, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 told The Daily Princetonian that he “personally and strongly” objected to classics professor Joshua Katz’s description of the Black Justice League (BJL) as a “local terrorist organization” in a Quillette column. At the time, University Spokesperson Ben Chang said the University would be “looking into the matter further.”
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published 15 days later, Katz, who learned that he was “not under investigation” despite his colleagues’ condemnation, declared victory over what he deemed a manifestation of cancel culture.
In the Journal’s op-ed, titled “I Survived Cancellation at Princeton,” Katz described the University’s statement about “looking into the matter” as “ominous” and wrote he was gratified to report that “Princeton’s leadership has done the right thing.”
Chang confirmed that “Professor Katz was not under investigation” in a statement to the ‘Prince’ on Sunday night.
Asked to comment for this story, Katz referred to a statement he submitted to the ‘Prince’ on July 12, titled “When Blunt Speech is Called for.” Katz’s Journal op-ed links to the same statement, the full text of which may be found here.
Katz is a former faculty columnist and trustee of the ‘Prince.’
A number of students and alumni previously called for the University to take formal action following Katz’s comments on the BJL, a Black student activist group active on campus from 2014 until 2016. Nadirah Farah Foley ’11, a Black alumna of the Department of Classics and a doctorate student at Harvard, previously told the ‘Prince’ she believes the matter “merits a formal inquiry.”
Eisgruber, however, stressed in a recent ‘Prince’ op-ed that Katz “can be answered but not censored or sanctioned.”
“When Katz disparaged the group last week as a ‘terrorist organization,’ I was among those who found his statement irresponsible and offensive,” the president wrote. “Our policies, however, protect Katz’s freedom to say what he did, just as they protected the Black Justice League’s.”
Katz also noted in his Journal op-ed that a message on the Department of Classics website condemning his language had been taken down, writing, “my departmental colleagues have taken down their unwise statement of condemnation.”
On July 13, four senior officials in the classics department — Chair Michael Flower, Director of Undergraduate Studies Joshua Billings, Director of Graduate Studies Brooke Holmes GS ’02 ’05, and Chair of the Equity and Inclusion Committee Andrew Feldherr ’85 — published a “message to the community” on the department’s website, in which they wrote that Katz’s “use of such language is abhorrent at this moment of national reckoning with the continuing legacy of systemic racism and violence.”
“It has heedlessly put our Black colleagues, students, and alums at serious risk,” they continued. “It is fundamentally incompatible with our mission and values as educators.”
The department’s July 13 statement is no longer available online, consistent with Katz’s description.
In an email on behalf of the message’s four signatories, Flower told the ‘Prince,’ “The statement served its purpose.”
“It reaffirmed the department’s strong commitment to the humanity and equal rights of each of its members,” Flower wrote. “It also publicly recognized the harm that the op-ed caused to many members of our community.”
Flower added that the department put out a new statement on July 24 that “focuses on the work we’re undertaking to advance equity and racial justice, both within the field and beyond.”
The new statement makes no mention of Katz or his characterization of the BJL.
“The Department of Classics has supported, and will redouble its efforts to support, student activism and continued dialogue around issues of racial justice,” the July 24 statement from the department read. “We are committed to creating a safe and supportive departmental environment for all, regardless of race, gender, or social and economic background.”
In a previous interview with the ‘Prince,’ Flower called Katz’s language on the BJL “absolutely abhorrent and factually untrue.”
In his original column, published in the commentary site Quillette, Katz responded to an open letter, signed by over 350 faculty members, that called on the University administration to act on 48 anti-racist demands.
The faculty letter included demands for formal divestment from prisons, hiring more Black faculty, and, on the issue of the BJL, a call for the University to “acknowledge, credit, and incentivize anti-racist student activism,” specifically “beginning with a formal public University apology to the members of the Black Justice League and their allies.”
In his Quillette column four days later, Katz identified the faculty open letter’s demand that the University convene a committee to “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty” as the thing that “scares me more than anything else.”
Katz also wrote that if the faculty members’ proposals were implemented, they would “lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate.”
“The Black Justice League, which was active on campus from 2014 until 2016, was 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,” Katz continued in his original column, characterizing a recent Instagram Live video by a BJL alum as a Maoist “struggle session” and “one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed.”
In his previous statement to the ‘Prince,’ Katz defended his use of the phrases “terrorist organization” and “struggle session.”
Three of the four authors of the faculty open letter — Professors Tracy K. Smith, Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06, and Andrew Cole — declined to comment for this story. The final author, Professor Jenny Greene, did not respond to request for comment.
Padilla Peralta previously condemned Katz’s column, writing to the ‘Prince’ that its “flagrant racism makes our case for us.” Smith described Katz’s column as “an act of reckless endangerment” in an email to Eisgruber.
In the Journal op-ed, Katz critiqued his adversaries for focusing their criticisms on his rhetoric about the BJL, instead of his other substantive claims.
“Unfortunately, heat over my use of the phrase ‘terrorist organization’ to describe a defunct student group called the Black Justice League — whose members targeted and smeared fellow undergraduates for disagreeing with them — has triumphed over light: Neither my colleagues’ substantive demands nor my objections have received the attention they deserve,” he wrote.
In a previous interview with the ‘Prince,’ Chair of the African American Studies Department Eddie S. Glaude GS ’97 dismissed Katz’s concerns about the proposed committee as “a red herring.”
“There’s this feeling that somehow there’s going to be a committee in some dark room policing the thoughts of Princeton faculty. As if that’s what we’re talking about,” Glaude said.
Katz framed the issue as one centered on “free speech and robust debate” on college campuses — both values he saw as having “prevailed” at the University.
Although writing, “I emphatically do not want anyone to come away with the impression that I feel victimized,” he added that he is “bruised and angry, and sad because so many people who privately say they agree with me are too frightened to state their opinions publicly.”
Katz’s column has received public support from a number of conservative commentators and politicians. Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro criticized the University’s response to the controversy, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell referenced the incident on the Senate floor on July 22 in an address on free speech.
“You see, the safe spaces only ever go in one direction,” he said. “On elite campuses, such as Princeton, we see faculty turning on their tenured colleagues, and even administrators weighing in, to chastise people with unpopular views.”
More than 80 University alumni signed a “letter of support for the rights of Professor Joshua T. Katz.” Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence in the politics department, and Samantha Harris ’99, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and a former student of Katz’s, tweeted out support for the column.
But for Holmes, a colleague of Katz’s in the classics department and a signatory of the faculty open letter, Katz’s latest op-ed in the Journal showed that he “continues to apply a standard for collegiality and courage to his colleagues and students that he doesn’t apply to himself.”
“A number of us in classics signed the faculty letter,” she told the ‘Prince.’ “If he wanted to have a constructive conversation about it, he didn’t need to write op-eds in the international and national press. We’re on email, too.”
According to Katz in the Journal, “I wrote in good faith, expecting that my response would contribute to a necessary discussion on campus — even more necessary than I had realized, I now see.”
Yet, in Holmes’ view, the op-ed revealed that Katz is “not really interested in listening to anyone, least of all our Black colleagues and students.”
In an op-ed published last week in the ‘Prince,’ Holmes wrote that Katz’s Quillette column “reads above all as a plea. Please don’t ask me to think about racism, or change anything in the way I conduct my professional life at Princeton, or listen to people of color when they talk about racism.”
Classics concentrator Andrew White ’22 felt that Katz’s op-ed “misses the whole point.”
“He conflates the outcry towards his reprehensible language with the suppression of free thought,” White wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “In doing so he can claim to be a ‘survivor’ of ‘cancel culture’ and continue to bemoan ideological warfare while not accepting responsibility for his actions.”
Referencing those who have denounced his language, Katz wrote in the Journal that he was “particularly impressed with those very few students and alumni who demonstrated courage by writing to me in harsh but thoughtful terms about their objections to my words rather than bullying me quasi-anonymously online.” For Katz, the dispute seems to come down to the notion that it is “much better for people to be permitted to argue than to follow, unthinkingly, the orthodoxy du jour.”
Josiah Gouker ’22, who has been vocal on social media in condemning both of Katz’s columns, found Katz’s lamentation of having endured a “close call” with “cancel culture” ironic.
“No one is accusing Katz of attempting to ‘cancel’ the faculty letter, or ‘cancel’ the BJL,” Gouker said. “He was never canceled in any meaningful or tangible sense — there were a lot of people who disagreed with what he said, and they simply vocalized that disagreement.”
“Sure his reputation took a hit, but that was because he called a student activist group a ‘local terrorist organization,’” he added. “He continues to call that hyperbole when in reality he should be thinking about how that is actually damaging to student movements.”
For Gouker, the notion of a uniquely menacing left-wing “cancel culture” has no basis in reality.
“People have been denouncing the words of other people since the beginning of language,” he said.
Holmes added her view that Katz’s column has shifted the conversation from what she sees as truly important.
“The humanity, dignity, and well-being of Black people should never be the collateral damage of free speech,” she wrote.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to reflect Joshua Katz’s previous affiliations with The Daily Princetonian.