A lawsuit filed by classics professor Joshua Katz that alleged “viewpoint discrimination” against him by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) was dismissed in court on Oct. 5.
The judge found that the suit failed to meet the requisite standards for jurisdiction in federal court in New Jersey, but did not rule on the merits of Katz’s claims. The decision leaves the door open for Katz to refile his suit against the ACLS in New York, where the society is based.
Katz did not respond to requests for comment, but his attorney Samantha Harris ’99 stressed in an email to The Daily Princetonian that “the court’s decision was unrelated to the question of whether ACLS breached its contract” with her client.
“Rather, the court decided, based on its analysis, that New Jersey was not the appropriate forum for the case to be heard,” Harris wrote. “This means the case may be re-filed elsewhere, and we are currently evaluating all of our options.”
In his complaint, initially filed in February, Katz had claimed that the ACLS, a federation of 75 scholarly organizations, retracted an invitation for him to serve as one of the society’s representatives to a prominent conference due to controversy surrounding a column he had penned in July 2020.
Katz alleged that after the society invited him to serve as a volunteer delegate to the Union Académique Internationale, an academic conference in Paris, it revoked the invite “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.”
He sought monetary compensation, claiming that the organization’s actions caused him “substantial damage, lessened his reputation, and reduced his potential for future advancement.”
In April, the ACLS filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing, among other things, that it could not be sued in New Jersey and that it had never entered into a contract with Katz.
The judge agreed with the first argument and dismissed the case on that basis alone.
“The alleged contract and communications between Plaintiff and ACLS do not give rise to the requisite contacts for specific personal jurisdiction,” the ruling stated, noting the fact that the ACLS entered into an alleged contract with the professor, a resident of New Jersey, “is not by itself sufficient” to justify jurisdiction.
Katz, who has taught at Princeton for more than two decades and now serves as Cotsen Professor in the Humanities, became the subject of campus controversy last year after writing a column that responded to an open letter of anti-racist demands signed by more than 350 of his Princeton colleagues.
Katz’s column argued that some of the demands in the letter would lead to “civil war on campus,” citing the proposal to “reward the invisible work done by faculty of color with course relief and summer salary” and “additional human resources for the support of junior faculty of color” as examples.
In the same letter, Katz also labeled a defunct student activist group, the Black Justice League (BJL), 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.”
In response, President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83, classics department leadership, and a host of alumni and faculty members publicly condemned the column. Katz later wrote of having “survived cancellation” in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.
The July 2020 incident has recently resurfaced in conservative media due to its inclusion in a new orientation module presented to incoming first-year students, titled “To be Known and Heard: Systemic Racism and Princeton University.”
In a chapter titled “Race and Free Speech,” the module describes how, “throughout its history, Princeton has grappled with what crosses the ‘line’ between free speech and freedom of expression, and racist statements and actions.”
It presents a number of historical examples of such tensions, including a 1886 ‘Prince’ editorial that favored hosting a minstrel show on campus, a 1949 performance by the Triangle Club that used blackface, a 1973 guest lecture by eugenics proponent and Nobel Laureate William B. Shockley, and 2015 and 2016 protests by the BJL against a lecture by Charles Murray, author of “The Bell Curve,” and a performance by a student group, Urban Congo, that mocked African cultures.
The chapter also features two more recent incidents: one involving a white student who used the n-word on social media and another describing the controversy surrounding Katz’s column.
The module describes how following the faculty letter on anti-racist action, Katz “took the opportunity to sharply rebuke” the BJL and includes an excerpt from his column alongside quotes from Chair of African American Studies Eddie S. Glaude GS ’97 and Chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts Tracy K. Smith rebuking his words.
The purpose of the orientation program, according to history professor Beth Lew-Williams, one of the panelists in its accompanying video, was to educate students.
“When students arrive at Princeton, they enter a community, institution, and space that was produced, in part, by past racial beliefs and systems of power,” Lew-Williams previously told the ‘Prince.’ “It’s better to understand this legacy we’re living within than try to ignore it.”
Critics meanwhile, such as professors John Londregan GS ’88 and Sergiu Klainerman, have accused the module of “indoctrination” and particularly criticized the site for “singl[ing] out classics professor Joshua Katz in a manner designed to stigmatize him as racist.”
Katz’s complaint against the ACLS framed the organization’s alleged disinvitation in the context of the broader issue of “cancel culture.”
“Individuals who express views that dissent from the prevailing ideology of the intellectual elite,” Harris, his attorney, wrote to the ‘Prince’ in March, “find themselves, if not fired outright, subject to what I would call death by a thousand cuts.”
The alleged disinvitation, she wrote, “is a perfect example of one of these ‘cuts.’”
Andrew Friedman, a spokesperson for the ACLS told the ‘Prince’ in March that the society was “founded to support both the free circulation of knowledge and a vigorous debate about ideas,” and would “defend the claims that Dr. Katz initiated” in court.
Friedman did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
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. It was first filed in New Jersey state court in February by Katz and then transferred to federal court in March.
Marie-Rose Sheinerman is a senior writer who has reported on COVID-19 policy, faculty controversy, sexual harassment allegations, major donors, campus protests, and more. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @rosesheinerman. She previously served as an editor of news and features and now assists with content strategy.