Last Wednesday, at Princeton University, vicious emails were sent to four students and a professor, threatening their lives because of their conservative political and religious views. The studentsall members of the Anscombe Society, the intellectual family-values organization on campuswere Sherif Girgis, Jonathan Hwang, Kevin Joyce, and Francisco Nava. The professor was Robert P. George (a First Things board member, whose lecture “Law and Moral Purpose” is featured in this month’s issue).
On Friday, the situation escalated dramatically, as one of the threatened students, the junior Francisco Nava, was attacked and beaten, and possibly suffered a concussion. Nava told the Princeton police that while he was walking to the home of a boy he regularly mentors, he was grabbed by two men who held him against a brick wall, punched him, and repeatedly hit his head against the bricks. He was taken to the University Medical Center at Princeton (the town hospital), treated and releasedbut was admitted to the campus health center the next day for further treatment. Though the University acknowledges that the initial threats fell through the cracks, administrators are responding to this assault thoughtfully and professionally.
The incident appears on its face a horrible example of what can happen when anger at those who dissent from campus orthodoxies is permitted to get out of control. A desire to compel conformity caused people to resort to threats and even violence in an effort to silence critics.
Or so, at least, it looks now. But mostly what is needed at Princeton now is a moment or two of calm, for there is a chanceonly a chance, and not by any means a certaintythat the emails were generated by one of the recipients and the assault was self-inflicted.
The timeline looks like this: In February of 2005, a group of students got together to start an organization devoted to intellectually defending and promoting traditional views on sex and marriage. They applied for official student group recognition from the Undergraduate Student Government, were approved, and founded the Anscombe Society (named after the renowned Cambridge philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe). They sponsor public lectures, hold discussion groups, engage in debates, and write op/eds and other articles. The organization has attracted to its ranks some of Princeton’s most outstanding students. In fact, for the past two years, officers of the Anscombe Society have won Rhodes Scholarships. One of these, Sherif Girgis, was among the group of students who received the most recent death threat.
The story of threats begins, however, with Princeton undergraduate Francisco Nava. He is well-liked by his peers, volunteers with University Big Brothers and Sisters, is involved in his church (he is an adult convert to Mormonism), is a member of the University’s interfaith Religious Life Council, and has compiled an impressive academic record. The Daily Princetonian reports that when Nava returned to campus this fall, he committed himself “to a kind of political coming-out, deciding that he would . . . ‘no longer mask [his] views on contemporary moral issues.’ And so he joined the Anscombe Society as an active member. He spoke up in class and precept in order to defend the beliefs that do not just belong to himthey define him and his faith.”
Nava was selected to serve as a residential advisor in Butler College (one of Princeton’s residential colleges), and earlier this fall, as part of his duties there, he led a discussion of two academic articles taking opposing positions on same-sex marriage. Apparently the discussion led to a loud debate, and Nava’s personal opposition to same-sex marriage quickly became a subject of discussion in the college. Shortly thereafter, he reports, he received a hand-written note in his mailbox reading: “YOU HAVE FOUND THE WRONG CAUSE.” Nava did not report the note to Public Safety (the campus police) because he didn’t want word to get back to his family, and at the time he didn’t think the threat was all that serious.
Later in the fall, the Anscombe Society hosted a public lecture by UCLA campus psychologist Miriam Grossman, author of Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student. Based on some of the arguments Grossman made about how administrative efforts to prevent sexually transmitted disease actually lead to more sexual activity, more disease, and more psychological distress, Nava penned an op/ed for the Daily Princetonian questioning the campus’s programs on condom distribution and sexual health titled “Princeton’s Latex Lies.”
Nava reports that he received numerous responses to this article. Some were quite positive, but many of the responses were quite critical, as subsequent Letters to the Editor demonstrate. Two days after the article appeared in print, Nava reported finding another hand-written note (in the same green and black ink): “ONE MORE ARTICLE AND YOU WON’T LIVE TO SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY.”
This time Nava called Professor George, who has served as an informal advisor to the Anscombe Society and who taught Nava in two undergraduate courses. George counseled Nava to contact the Public Safety office immediately. Nava called, and a Public Safety officer came, took a brief statement, and collected the threatening note, but Nava didn’t hear back from them for several weeks, and when he did he informed them about a third threatening note he had just received the previous day. He heard nothing from the administration. (He reports that subsequently the Public Safety detective apologized to him explaining that he wasn’t sure why the report languished on his desk for so long. Administrators told Nava they are unsure why they were never notified by Public Safety.)
Things were relatively quiet on campus for the next couple of weeks. Students went home for Thanksgiving and then returned to campus ready to complete the semester. Then, last Wednesday an op/ed appeared in the Daily Princetonian that attacked the Anscombe Society, claiming the group “promotes discrimination against fellow Princetonians,” that “the literature from the Anscombe Society serves only to reinforce anti-gay bigotry,” and that the group believes that “working mothers are ruining the country.”
The student officers of the Anscombe Society started e-mailing one another about drafting a response. They also e-mailed Professor George to seek his advice. Later that day, Professor George and four of the officersGirgis, Hwang, Joyce, and Navareceived a death threat by e-mail. In fact, they had been sent two death threats, but the first was caught by the University’s spam filter because it used an expletive. (It was discovered the following morning.)
The threat that was blocked by the spam filter read: SHUT THE [expletive] UP WE WILL DESTROY ALL OF YOU WE ARE WATCHING YOU YOU DONT BELONG HERE WE WILL KILL YOU.
The one they received read: jonathan, robert, kevin, francisco and sherif:: i am telling you know that we are watching you all. we will destroy you. you are not welcome here. you will suffer...all of you. shut the [expletive] uP!!! (In this email, percentage signs, “%,” were inserted between the letters of the expletive, so that it passed through the university’s spamcatcher.)
The students and Professor George immediately contacted Public Safety, and George wrote to the Vice President of Student Life to make her aware of the situation. It seemed likely at the time that these threats were in response to that day’s inflammatory op/ed. The Office of Information Technology discovered that both of these threats were sent from public computers in the main Princeton University library, but they were not sent from University e-mail accounts.
Thursday's and Friday’s editions of the Daily Princetonian carried sharp Letters to the Editor responding to the Anscombe-attack op/ed. Members of the Society were responding with full force saying they were ready for an academic debate, not childish hysterics and name calling. Friday’s paper also contained an article about the most recent death threats, and an op/ed questioning why the administration hadn’t taken the earlier threats against Nava more seriously. (Nava repeatedly resisted being interviewed for this, not wanting to draw attention to himself or the threats, but subsequently agreed to the interview.) Later that day Nava received an e-mail from the IvyGate blog warning him that they had dirt on him.
On Friday evening Nava was attacked.
At 6:55 that night, George received a call from Nava, who was in the Emergency Room at the University Medical Center. George reports that Nava’s speech was slurred and his thoughts seemed confused. Once at the hospital, George and the other students say they met the mother of the child Nava tutors. She reports that Nava entered her house badly beaten and bleeding. She called the police and Nava was transported by ambulance to the emergency room. Nava reports that he “was told by the examining ER doctor that [he] had suffered a concussion, based on the vomiting in the ambulance, nausea, and dizziness.” George spoke with Nava briefly, and then a Princeton Township police officer and campus Public Safety officer interviewed Nava in private.
Nava was released that night and explained the attack to the Anscombe group. He said that night he had driven a Student Volunteers Council car a short distance from campus to the home of the elementary school student he tutors every Friday. After he got out of the car, a white, blue-eyed, college-aged male wearing a stocking capwhom Nava described as appearing distraughtcalled to him for help, saying someone had been injured. Assuming a child had fallen off his bicycle or something similar, Nava followed the man around the corner into a poorly lit area. Once he turned the corner, Nava reports that he was grabbed by someone else and thrown against a brick wall.
According to Nava, the two men then grabbed Nava’s jaw to keep him from screaming and repeatedly punched him and hit his head against the wall. Nava said he blacked out at one point, and that when he regained consciousness they were beating him with the glass Orangina bottle he had been carrying. They then told him to “shut the fk up”a phrase that had been included in the earlier threatsand slowly walked away. After Nava was released from the hospital, George invited him to stay at his house, and another student, Jonathan Hwang, volunteered to stay with Nava and wake him every four hours as the emergency room doctor had ordered (because of the possibility that he had sustained a concussion).
Late that night, the president of the Anscombe Society, Kevin Joyce, e-mailed George, Hwang, and Girgis to report a startling discovery. He had heard from a friend that when Nava was at the Groton School he had fabricated an incident of hate-speech against his roommate and himself using the phrase “die fags!” (Nava’s roommate was one of the founders of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Groton.)
Hwang, the student spending the night with Nava, picked up the message first and immediately asked Nava about the incident. Nava confirmed that it happened, but told Hwang that it had nothing to do with his assault; this wasn’t a hoax. After Nava got out of bed, he walked into the kitchen and asked to speak with Professor George alone. George took him into another room in the house and Nava told George all about the Groton incident.
George tells me that Nava described it as a “bad part of his past” and that Nava was insistent that the assault on him had not been fabricated. Nava explained to George that at the time of the Groton incident his father had recently passed away, he was suffering from depression, and he was deeply homesick. Nava thought a threat on his life would convince his mother to let him come home. Eventually the school discovered that Nava was behind the alleged hate crime, and punished him duly.
George asked Nava if the university knew about this. Nava told him that when he applied for admission, Groton had notified Princeton about the incident and that he had written a letter to the dean of admissions explaining his actions. Princeton was satisfied with Nava’s credentials and his explanation, and they granted him admission, provided he took a year off in between and received appropriate counseling. George said to Nava that though the administration had the information about Groton in its files, his immediate obligation was to inform the investigators at the Office of Public Safety. As soon as Nava had breakfast and got dressed, George drove him to the Public Safety office and Nava informed the detective responsible for the case of what had happened at Groton.
After he dropped Nava off, George gathered the other students who received the threatening e-mails to see where things stood. They discussed ways to assist Public Safety in the investigation, both to get to the truth of the matter of what happened to Nava, and to know for sure whether their own lives were in danger. Along the way, other potential problems with Nava’s story emerged. It seemed, for instance, implausible that Nava would have actually received the 250 responses to his “Latex Lies” op/ed that he claimed. And the fact that the first death threat came before the op/ed bothered them.
More, the second e-mailed death threat looked odd. How did the sender know to send a second threat that masked the obscenity with percentage marks unless one of the recipients was also the sender and noticed that he hadn’t received the message, and then resent it in a format that wouldn’t be blocked by the spam filter? (Then again, it is also possible that the sender blind carbon-copied (bcc) himself.)
On the other hand, people who know Nava see him as a highly respected and accomplished student at Princeton. And those who have personally seen him after the attack insist that it is extremely unlikely that he could have inflicted such damage (including a badly swollen jaw) on himself.
Still, they decided against (and called off plans for) large public solidarity events. These events, they had been advised, would likely detract from the investigation, and because it was still too early to know exactly what had happened, it seemed irresponsible to be organizing candle light vigils, days of silence, and so forth. As George put it to me, “people at Duke made huge mistakes in the Lacrosse case by rushing to conclusions, publishing declarations, and holding solidarity events before the facts were fully established; we were determined not to make those mistakes.”
In the meantime, Nava was being transported to the campus health center to have his jaw examined. On the way, he saw someone wearing a stocking cap like the one worn by one of his assailants and called out to his security guard to “get that guy’s name”thinking that this was the perpetrator. Nava’s breath quickly drew short, his heart started racing, and his face became flush. He was having a panic attack. When he reached the health center, he was immediately given counselingwhere he was told that he was likely suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorderand then given a six-hour sedative.
When Nava came out of the sedation on Saturday evening, Professor George went to talk with him. On Monday the investigation was scheduled to be transferred to the Princeton Township police. If the police discovered a fabrication, Nava would, George told him, be subject to criminal penalties. Nava replied that he had nothing to hidethat everything he had said about the threats and the attacks was true and that he would now be lying if he said otherwise.
George reports that he then questioned Nava very closely and carefully about the legitimate questions on circumstantial evidence and about Nava’s history. Nava insisted that he was not behind any of the threats or the assault. He understood why George and others would be concerned about his history at Groton, but he assured him that back then he was a different person.
So this is where things stand. We have a group of Princeton students and a professor who have received death threats, one of them having been threatened repeatedly and now badly beaten.
Is it possible that it’s a fabrication and an inside job? It is not impossible, but witnesses believe that Nava could not have inflicted the beating on himself. While the Groton incident is disturbing, the Princeton admissions office was satisfied with Nava’s explanation. As for the e-mail account, the Office of Information Technology may be able to uncover more information in the coming days.
On the other hand, there’s good reason to think that Nava is being honest and that he has suffered a terrible assault. His beatings were severe, and the panic he suffered on Saturday, after seeing a student in a ski cap similar to his assailants, is telling.
Right now there is great temptation for both sides of the standard culture-war divide to use this attack for political advantage. The Right can say, “Look at these terrible Ivy League Universities: hostile to conservatives and now downright unsafe.” While the Left can say, “Look at this crazy Mormon, threatening and even attacking himself just to play the victim card.”
Unlike the case of the Duke Lacrosse rape scandal, everyone at Princeton Universitythe administration, Public Safety, and the threatened students and professoris handling this the right way. Some in the blogosphereincluding many who were so critical of Duke’s handling of the “rape”are falling into the temptation to take sides too early and use this incident for political advantage. There’s no doubt that we have something here of major significance, but the important thing is not to jump to conclusions.
Ryan T. Anderson is an assistant editor at First Things. A 2007 Phillips Foundation fellow, he is the assistant director of the Program in Bioethics at the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, New Jersey.