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Former ACLU President discusses free speech at Princeton panel

<h6>Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

On Thursday, Oct. 6, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions hosted a panel about free speech controversies on- and off-campus. Former American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) president Nadine Strossen and Assistant Professor of Politics Greg Conti discussed, among other topics, the partisanship associated with free speech and the specific role of universities.

Strossen discussed the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, which emphasizes institutional neutrality on free speech issues, and whose adoption has recently been encouraged by some Princeton professors and students

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“No sooner is taking a stance in one case then fail[ing] to do so in another seen as implicit approval [of] whatever happened,” Strossen said, emphasizing that those in administrative positions at universities should refrain from speaking about issues of the day.

Professor of Near Eastern Studies Bernard Haykel, one of the directors of the Initiative on Freedom of Thought, Inquiry, and Expression, is one of the University professors who has called for the adoption of the Kalven Report. 

Before the event, he sat down with The Daily Princetonian to discuss his interests in free speech. Referencing his research on countries “where there is no free speech, where people live under regimes of oppression,” he explained that he “understands that freedom of expression and diversity of opinion is a beautiful thing.”

“Offensive speech ought not to be restricted but rebutted, Nazis shouldn’t be silenced but fought against,” he said. 

Not all audience members agreed with the stance, however. 

“I am someone who strongly disagrees with [Strossen’s] belief that universities should stay neutral, since it's important to make a clear decision and have a clear position and stance on certain issues,” Noah Eshaghpour-Silberman ’26 said.

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“I think it’s a better avenue for creating debate and discourse when there is something for people to agree or disagree with. I think a large part of the criticism that we see in regards to university administration is their lack of a desire to take such stances,” he added.

“Academic freedom has to extend to tolerating ideas you disagree with,” Strossen explained, with regard to expected conduct and freedom of expression of university employees. “It’s a different matter when you extend those beliefs to actually acting negatively toward colleagues or students.” 

However, she acknowledged that “the Supreme Court has been very murky in addressing academic freedom.”

“It has wonderful prose extolling how important this value is, and yet it never has articulated exactly what it constitutes,” she said.  

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The topic of university professors and free speech was brought close to home when an audience member asked about Strossen’s thoughts on the firing of professor Joshua Katz in May.

Strossen said she believed the firing was “unjust, unprincipled.” Without elaborating clearly on the details, she said that letters of University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 exhibited “constantly shifting rationales and rationalizations that reflected very poorly on a president saluted by the board of trustees.”

The University Board of Trustees dismissed Katz, a former classics professor, after an internal investigation by the Dean of the Faculty found that he had “misrepresented facts” and failed to be fully forthcoming during a prior, separate 2018 investigation into a relationship he had with an undergraduate advisee in the mid-2000s. 

The same investigation also found that Katz had “a successful effort to discourage the alumna from participating and cooperating after she expressed the intent to do so,” among other findings, according to the University’s statement, which said that the professor’s behavior constituted “not only egregious violations of University policy, but also entirely inconsistent with his obligations as a member of the Faculty.”

Though he has acknowledged the relationship with an undergraduate — for which he had previously faced a year-long suspension in 2018 — Katz has publicly denied the allegations that led to his termination from the University, arguing that the decision was a form of “cultural double jeopardy,” and that he was in fact being punished for a July 2020 op-ed in which he criticized a series of demands related to racial equity.

Strossen praised Katz for certain objections he voiced to structural changes demanded after the murder of George Floyd, explaining that she “was thrilled to see he had the courage to object, and I thought this is exactly what tenure is for.”

Strossen said that the debate over free speech is no new development, recounting that when she was young, during the Vietnam Era, “Student radicals were trying to stop defense contractors and government officials who supported the war from speaking, and I wanted to hear their perspectives.” 

She added that the best way to counter hateful rhetoric is ignoring those who engage in that speech. “A lot of these people are just looking for the publicity they'll gain from trying to silence them,” she said.

In discussing one of Strossen’s recent articles in which she condemned bans of Critical Race Theory in schools, she examined the intricate relationship between public regulation and free speech in public schools. 

“Even when the government’s purpose is promoting national unity, which is usually one of the values that’s prescribed and used to justify devolving discretion onto school boards, we can’t do it at the price of individual conscience.” She cited West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, in which the Supreme Court ruled mandatory flag salutes in schools are unconstitutional.  

As the event came to an end, Strossen fielded questions from the audience. When asked, “To what extent do you think cancel culture is simply another expression of free speech?”, she responded with an analogy. 

“In the criminal justice system, we are moving away from too harsh, too punitive approaches to more restorative approaches, so if we can do that for people convicted of homicide can’t we do it for people who have troublesome ideas?” she said.

“Treating someone as a criminal isn’t going to get them to change their attitudes, it's going to have the opposite impact and make them appear to be martyrs and gain more followers,” she added. 

Abby Leibowitz is a news contributor for the Prince. Please direct any corrections requests to corrections@dailyprincetonian.com.

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