A number of prominent University faculty members and alumni were among the 153 artists, writers, and scholars who signed an open letter “on justice and open debate,” published in Harper’s Magazine on Tuesday, July 7.
The letter, which warned of an “intolerant climate” permeating left-wing political discourse, sparked intense debate over the state of free speech in politically progressive circles and made headlines with household-name signatories such as J.K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, and Margaret Atwood.
Among the undersigned were University history professors Sean Wilentz, Matthew Karp, Nell Irvin Painter, and Anthony Grafton; politics professors Paul Starr and Andrew Moravcsik; and former Dean of the School of Public and International Affairs Anne-Marie Slaughter. Michael Walzer, the renowned political theorist who formerly taught at the Institute for Advanced Studies, also signed.
Alumni signatories included New York Times columnist Jennifer Senior ’91; writer and Yeshiva University professor Joy Ladin GS ’00; Harvard Law School professor and former University trustee Randall Kennedy ’77; philosopher Rebecca Goldstein GS ’77; and journalist Robert F. Worth GS ’77.
In the three-paragraph letter, the signatories lauded the “powerful protests for racial and social justice” for “leading to overdue demands for police reform,” but stressed that “this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”
“As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second,” they wrote. “The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion.”
Karp wrote in an email to the The Daily Princetonian that he signed the letter because he agreed with what he saw as its essential point: “the restriction of debate invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.”
“To me, as a democratic socialist, the proposition that employees should not be fired from their jobs for taking part in political debate seems like it should be quite straightforward, even blandly uncontroversial on the left,” he added. “Unfortunately, in this moment, that does not seem to be the case.”
Like Karp, Ladin thought the letter was profoundly uncontroversial.
“A colleague who had drafted the letter was inviting people to sign it, and I read it and thought, ‘Yeah, you know, this is okay, it’s pretty vague and general,’ but to me it seems like sort of the democratic discourse equivalent of saying you’re in favor of Mother’s Day or something ... which I think could also get me in trouble. There are ways that I could support Mother’s Day that would also get me in trouble,” she said.
Wilentz told the ‘Prince’ he signed the letter because he was “disturbed by what the letter describes as a growth of a kind of ‘illiberalism’ on the left, but also in mainstream organizations, over the last couple of months.”
“I thought it was a good idea to have writers, intellectuals, scholars stand up and say, ‘No more,’” he explained.
Karp, Starr, and Wilentz all agreed that nothing they had experienced first-hand at the University prompted their signatures.
“My signing of the letter had nothing to do with events within the Princeton community,” Starr clarified in an email to the ‘Prince,’ and Wilentz added that the University has “thus far resisted the kinds of thought control policing and shaming that’s cropped up elsewhere.”
“It’s been remarkably open and intellectually diverse,” Wilentz wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “But that balance, that small ‘l’ liberal spirit, is always fragile and easily endangered ... I hope Princeton will always remain true to those principles of free inquiry.”
The letter condemned a culture of “intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in blinding moral certainty.”
For Wilentz, the question comes down to “who’s the judge.”
“A lot of people have a great deal of sense of virtue, of flawlessness, of purity — and they have decided that they can tell better than anyone what the limits are of debate,” he said. “It becomes mob rule after a while … unless it’s outright slander, libel — and even there, there’s a pretty wide latitude for public figures — we ought to err on the side of latitude.”
In Wilentz’s view, one prominent example of this intolerant culture was the recent resignation of New York Times Opinion Editor James Bennet, following a public outcry over publication of an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton titled “Send In the Troops.” A number of prominent Black Times staffers, including author of the 1619 Project Nikole Hannah-Jones, staged a virtual “walk-out,” tweeting that the op-ed “put Black people, including Times staff, in danger.”
“With regard to Tom Cotton’s piece that was run in the Times, there were some problems, I gather, with how the piece was handled, that it wasn’t vetted as fully as it might have been,” Wilentz said. “But you know ... those things happen. Nobody’s perfect. So, it was extraordinary.”
“I might not have liked the editorial, but you know, usually, you run these editorials, you see how people respond, and then you move on. Even if you make a mistake, you move on,” he went on. “The way that it was put in terms of safety, I found that meretricious. The idea that people’s safety was being compromised, I found that meretricious. It turned it into a union matter.”
Walzer alluded to the incident at The Times as well, writing to the ‘Prince’ that he signed the letter because “of things happening at the NYTimes, at other publications where I sometimes write, and at colleges and universities around the country, where I have friends who have had to defend students and colleagues harassed or ostracized because of their political opinions.”
In the days following the Harper’s letter, many activists took to Twitter and other platforms to condemn it. Author John Warner tweeted he read the letter as an “effort to protect one’s status and turf,” and Stanford political science professor Hakeem Jefferson wrote, “I think there are folks who conflate living in a society where we should be aware of how our words land (particularly on vulnerable people) with being censored. I disagree with that conflation.”
To Ladin, the public response to the letter came as a surprise.
“It amazes me that people have the energy and concern to expend on this right now,” she said. “Now that I see the reaction, it’s a sign to me of how I’ve not been paying attention to important ways that public discourse is happening right now.”
One of the letter’s own signatories, trans author Jennifer Finney Boylan, retracted her endorsement of its content in a tweet. “I did not know who else had signed that letter … I am so sorry,” she wrote.
J.K. Rowling’s signature on the letter in particular incited backlash, likely sparking Finney Boylan’s apology. Rowling has become embroiled in controversy surrounding anti-transgender tweets and prompted many to label her a transphobe by penning an essay on the dangers she sees certain trans activists posing to the fight against gendered violence.
But for Ladin — a trans woman herself and Yeshiva’s first trans professor — “Rowling does not matter to me, apart from the fact that she helps me while away hours of my children’s growing up process.”
“As a trans person, I don’t feel that my life is impacted at all by what she says. I just don’t care. I have lots of real problems, and lots of other trans people I know have lots of real problems,” she said. She added that, personally, she has always found the world imagined in Rowling’s Harry Potter series to be “sociologically stupid.”
“I don’t think that she’s a sophisticated voice on these issues,” she said.
For many in the LGBTQ+ community, however, Ladin acknowledged the Harry Potter series has been a “site of imaginative resistance — a way of identifying as somebody who’s different, in positive ways.”
“I think a lot of those people have felt extremely hurt and betrayed by her and what she says, and it does matter to them,” she said. “To me — not so much.”
Ladin said she did not know who was signing the letter at the time when she decided to support it, but she said it upsets her that people feel the need to “divide people into very binary categories” — a need she believes stems from people feeling “existentially threatened.”
“J.K. Rowling has moved into the ‘bad’ category, and by signing this letter I’ve somehow confused those categories … Like, ‘are you a ‘bad’ person now?’,” she said. “As a trans person, as a Jewish person, as a teacher, as a humanist, I really really reject binary, essentializing categorization of people — I know it comes from a place of fear, and vulnerability, and anger.”
“No matter how wrong-headed I think J.K. Rowling is about trans folks, there are things that I agree with her about,” Ladin added. “She and I both agree that violence against women is a terrible problem. We don’t agree that trans people are a part of that problem.”
Kennedy and Grafton declined to comment on the letter. Senior, Slaughter, Goldstein, Moravcsik, and Painter did not respond to requests for comment.