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Joshua Katz sues academic society, alleges ‘viewpoint discrimination’

The classics professor has accused the ACLS of withdrawing his delegate status following his controversial remarks on a Black student group last summer

Classics professor Joshua Katz has filed a lawsuit alleging that the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), a federation of 75 scholarly organizations, retracted his invitation to serve as one of the society’s delegates to a prominent international conference after he wrote a controversial op-ed last July.

In the complaint, Katz claims that the ACLS invited him to serve as a volunteer delegate to the Union Académique Internationale (UAI), an academic conference based in Paris, and then revoked that invitation “solely because he expressed views that, although fully reasonable and protected by ordinary principles of academic freedom, offend the ideological sensibilities of some in academia.”

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Katz is seeking unspecified monetary compensation on the basis that the organization’s actions caused him “substantial damage, lessened his reputation, and reduced his potential for future advancement.”

Although the ACLS delegate position is unpaid, the complaint alleges that “honorary positions such as the UAI delegate position play a significant role in the career trajectory of an academic,” and lead to greater “recognition and prestige.”

Katz claims that the society’s president, Joy Connolly, personally invited him in February 2020 to serve as a delegate to UAI. Katz says he accepted the appointment, which he understood would last many years, the following month. According to the suit, Connolly revoked that invitation in September as a result of Katz’s outspokenness over the summer. 

The complaint alleges that Connolly told Katz that his “article in Quillette this summer and follow-up statement took a strong personal stance on racism at Princeton, and it drew a great deal of attention on social media and elsewhere.” Accordingly, the complaint adds, Connolly told Katz that she had “decided to ask another scholar to serve as ACLS’s UAI representative.”

Last July, Katz drew controversy when he published an op-ed in Quillette denouncing a letter signed by more than 350 Princeton faculty members calling on President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 and senior administrators to enact 48 anti-racist demands. 

In the op-ed, Katz called a disbanded student activist group, the Black Justice League (BJL), a “local terrorist organization,” and claimed that some of the changes proposed by his colleagues — such as compensation for the “invisible work done by faculty of color” and a guarantee of an additional sabbatical semester to faculty of color hired at the junior level — would lead to “civil war on campus.”

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Katz says in his suit that Connolly’s decision to revoke his invitation as a delegate “came as a complete shock” because it was tied to “the viewpoint he expressed.”

“Viewpoint discrimination is rightly considered one of the most poisonous forms of censorship,” the complaint asserts.

Andrew Friedman, a spokesperson for ACLS, wrote in a statement to The Daily Princetonian that the organization was “founded to support both the free circulation of knowledge and a vigorous debate about ideas.” 

“We see this matter much differently,” Friedman added, “and through the judicial process, ACLS will vigorously defend the claims that Dr. Katz initiated.”

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In a document filed with the court, the ACLS’s lawyers wrote that the organization denies Katz’s allegations. Connolly did not respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit was originally filed on Feb. 4 in Mercer County superior court. On Mar. 5, the ACLS sought to transfer the case to New Jersey federal district court. 

The Atlantic first reported that Katz was “suing the ACLS” on Jan. 29, five days before Katz’s complaint was filed. When contacted by the ‘Prince’ at the time, a spokeswoman for the ACLS said on Jan. 31 that it was not aware of any litigation by Katz against the organization.

In the days following the publication of Katz’s op-ed last summer, some faculty colleagues and alumni — including classics department chair Michael Flower, classics professor and co-author of the original faculty letter Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06, and President Eisgruber — publicly condemned the professor’s words on the BJL. Others both within and outside the University community, such as politics professor Robert George and the Wall Street Journal editorial board, came to Katz’s defense.

Flower later took down his and other classics administrators’ statement of condemnation from the department’s website, and Eisgruber penned an op-ed assuring the community that the University’s policies “protect Katz’s freedom to say what he did” and that he can be “answered but not censored or sanctioned.”

In his complaint, Katz credited Eisgruber with confirming Princeton’s “commitment to free speech,” but accused other colleagues of attempting to “cancel” him.

“The Director of Graduate Studies for Classics wrote individually to each graduate student in the department about the ‘pain’ allegedly caused by [Katz’s] article,” the complaint states, “which is the presumptive cause of the fact that only one graduate student enrolled in Plaintiff’s graduate seminar in Fall 2020.”

Brooke Holmes GS ’05, the graduate studies director at the time, did not respond to a request for comment on the characterization of these emails, and the University Office of Communications declined to comment on the lawsuit. 

Enrollment information from the registrar confirmed only one student was registered for Katz’s graduate seminar in the fall semester, but showed that his freshman seminar for the same semester was at capacity.

The complaint framed the ACLS’s disinvitation in the broader context of “cancel culture” — evidenced by Holmes’ alleged emails — writing that the “effort to cancel Plaintiff spread beyond the university to ACLS.” 

Samantha Harris ’99, one of Katz’s attorneys, told the ‘Prince’ that while “cancel culture” can be a “loaded and not necessarily helpful” term, “it is undeniable that we are living in a moment of tremendous intolerance for differing points of view.”

“Individuals who express views that dissent from the prevailing ideology of the intellectual elite,” Harris wrote, “find themselves, if not fired outright, subject to what I would call death by a thousand cuts.”

The ACLS’s alleged disinvitation, she argued, “is a perfect example of one of these ‘cuts,’” and the organization needs “to be held accountable for their actions.”

Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and a longtime colleague of Katz, tweeted about the lawsuit. 

“To defend academic freedom, when universities or sattelite [sic] institutions like ACLS violate constitutional, statutory, or contractual rights, sue them,” George wrote. 

George recently helped found the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), an organization designed to protect “the rights of faculty members at colleges and universities to speak, instruct, and publish without fear of sanction or punishment.” He did not respond to a request for comment on whether he or the group supports Katz’s suit. Katz is a publicly listed member of the AFA.

Both Katz and his listed attorney for the suit, Jonathan Roth, did not respond to interview requests.

Katz served as a trustee at the ‘Prince’ from 2014 to early 2020, and before that as a faculty columnist from 2006 to 2013.

The lawsuit referred to in this story is Katz v. American Council of Learned Societies, case number 3:21-cv-04306-AET-TJB in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.