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Responding to academic freedom group’s letter, Eisgruber resists removing segment on Prof. Joshua Katz from ‘To Be Known and Heard’

<h5>&nbsp;University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83&nbsp;</h5>
<h6>Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
 University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

A segment on classics professor Joshua Katz’s controversial statement calling a former Black student activist group a “terrorist organization” will remain on the University’s To Be Known and Heard website, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 said in a statement on Thursday, responding to the Academic Freedom Alliance’s (AFA) request to “refrain from using its administrative resources to target” Katz. 

The AFA’s letter, sent to Eisgruber on March 27, had rebuked Nassau Hall for To Be Known and Heard’s segment on Katz, citing a concern that the administration was “systematically denouncing a sitting member of its own faculty” and argued that this constituted a violation of academic freedom. 

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The AFA letter was signed by politics professor Keith Whittington, who chairs the group’s academic committee. The AFA is a non-profit established in March 2021 that works to “uphold the principles of academic freedom for faculty members at colleges and universities in the United States,” according to their website.

In his response to the AFA’s letter, Eisgruber said he would “resist any suggestion” that the To Be Known and Heard website be edited to no longer mention Katz, citing his own concerns around upholding academic freedom. The website was created for a January 2021 Wintersession program through the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding and was presented during first-year orientation programming for the Class of 2025.

“I share your deep regard for free speech and academic freedom,” Eisgruber said in his response, shared with The Daily Princetonian by the University Office of Communications. “I am concerned, however, that your letter appears to ask me to censor a website consisting of teaching materials prepared for a January 2021 Wintersession program and maintained on a University website for educational purposes.”

“Given that the production and publication of teaching materials in general deserves protection under the principles of academic freedom and free speech, I am inclined to resist any suggestion of censorship,” Eisgruber added.

Eisgruber also responded to the AFA’s claim that “Professor Katz was singled out for criticism at a university-sponsored orientation event.” Eisgruber acknowledged that while the University had hosted an orientation event that made use of the To Be Known and Heard website, the panelists did not discuss Katz or the associated part of the website.

In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Whittington noted that while Katz is not under the threat of being fired or “sanctioned” for what he said, “there’s the concern that university administrators are engaging in a campaign of intimidation and harassment against him.” 

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“I do think the university needs to think more seriously about this kind of institutional speech and what’s appropriate for administrative units on campus to be doing,” he said.

Katz and his attorney did not respond to requests seeking comment on the AFA letter to Eisgruber. Katz is a member of the AFA, but Whittington noted that he was not involved in the organization's deliberations on this issue.

To Be Known And Heard is part of a new orientation module presented to incoming first-year students that states as its goal for “students and others to learn about race and racism from around the time of the University’s founding up to today.”

The “Race and Free Speech'' chapter of the website 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.” The chapter features a number of examples of such instances, including details of the controversy surrounding a Quillete article Katz wrote in 2020, in which he referred to the Black Justice League (BJL), a student activist group active until 2016, as a “local terrorist organization.”

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The To Be Known and Heard website quotes one sentence from Katz’s piece: “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.” Below that statement are quotations from Eisgruber and other faculty members rebuking Katz for his speech.

The website describes how following a faculty letter urging Princeton to act on a list of anti-racist demands, 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 AFA letter claimed that, on the website, “Katz is held out as an example of a professor making a racist statement and is shown being denounced by the university president, the Classics department, and the chairs of two academic units for engaging in racist speech.”

Eisgruber emphasized in his letter to Whittington the importance of including information about the controversy on the website.

“It is hard to imagine how the website could have covered recent controversies about race, free speech, and student protest at Princeton without mentioning the exchange between Dr. Katz and his critics,” he wrote.

AFA’s letter is the most recent in a string of objections to the website’s mention of Katz’s op-ed.

Last October, mathematics professor Sergiu Klainerman and other faculty members submitted a complaint alleging that administrators responsible for the creation of the website violated University policies for the purpose of harassing and discrediting Katz.

The University declined to investigate Klainerman’s complaint, according to a Dec. 7, 2021 letter signed by Michele Minter, Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity.

Then, on March 15, Princetonians for Free Speech (PFS), a non-profit run by alumni, published a letter on their website asking the University’s Board of Trustees to commission an investigation into what they referred to as a “smear campaign” against Katz on the To Be Known and Heard website. The letter was signed by members of the PFS Board of Directors Stuart Taylor Jr. ’70, Edward Yingling ’70, and Todd Rulon-Miller ’73.

Ten days earlier, Yingling and Taylor Jr. had published an article in Real Clear Politics on the same issue.

Yingling, in an email to the ‘Prince’ on March 25, claimed that “others had the right to criticize Professor Katz’s statement.” 

“This is not about what individuals said,” he wrote. “This is about Princeton administrators using those statements and creating a context to attack Professor Katz for speech the President of the University said was protected under Princeton’s rules.”

Yingling and Whittington told the ‘Prince’ that their organizations had not coordinated with each other in objecting to Katz’s treatment by the University website. 

In their complaints to the University, Klainerman, AFA, and PFS also took issue with what they said was a misleadingly incomplete quotation of Katz’s statements in his op-ed on the To Be Known and Heard website. 

The complaint filed by Klainerman and others last October noted that Katz’s quote on To Be Known and Heard had been altered so as to leave out the parenthetical “(including the many black students)” after the phrase “who did not agree with its members’ demands.”

The quote, as it appears currently on To Be Known and Heard, is unaltered from the way in which it appears in Katz’s original Quillete op-ed, including that parenthetical.

The AFA’s letter noted that the organization was “disappointed that the correction was made through a stealth edit with no acknowledgement of the error and certainly with no apology to Professor Katz for the misrepresentation of his writing.”

In Eisgruber’s response to AFA, he acknowledged that “the authors of the website had an ethical obligation to correct the error, as they did shortly after the matter was brought to the University’s attention.”

Whittington told the ‘Prince’ that the controversy over Katz’s portrayal on To Be Known and Heard is “a question of how universities ought to conduct themselves in general.”

Eisgruber wrote in his response to Whittington that “University staff members enjoy free speech rights along with other members of our community, including the protections of academic freedom when the staff members engage in teaching activity.”

“If the website had engaged in name-calling or made derogatory comments about Dr. Katz, I would regard it as inconsistent with University values,” he wrote. “The website, however, does nothing of the kind.” 

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

Paige Cromley is an assistant Features editor and a writer for the News and Prospect sections of The Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at pcromley@princeton.edu.

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