This is a time of testing for our nation. We were already in the midst of dealing with a pandemic—trying to protect public health while respecting basic constitutional liberties—when the killing of George Floyd triggered outrage and intensified attention to our tragic legacy of racial injustice and questions of the persistence of racism and whether it is systemic.
Here are two important, and related, questions: Can we debate issues pertaining to race while honoring principles such as freedom of thought and expression that are essential to the maintenance of a democratic republic? Will our intense disagreements over such things as monuments and defunding the police destroy what Lincoln called “the bonds of affection” that enable us to recognize one another as fellow citizens—not mortal enemies—despite our differences?
These questions are, of course, particularly critical—and urgent—in academia. Freedom of speech and intellectual freedom more generally are integral to the truth-seeking mission of colleges and universities. The uproar in the country has put these institutions to the test on the question of whether honest, robust debates can take place on our campuses. It is scarcely news that at many colleges and universities dominant opinion is far to the left. Can dissent—open, blunt dissent—from progressive views on the issues of the day be tolerated?
My Princeton colleague Joshua Katz is, to say the least, an unlikely figure to be at the center of controversy. He has never been a political person, and though we are friends, I don’t have the slightest idea what his political party affiliation is or whom he has voted for in elections. His scholarly research is in historical and comparative linguistics, and he mainly teaches Greek and Latin languages and literature. He describes himself as a “library rat.”
Nevertheless, he was recently at the center of a controversy that gained national attention. Many believed, though I did not, that his free speech rights would not be honored. Some feared, and others hoped, that he would be subjected to discipline, perhaps even the termination of his employment—despite being a tenured professor. In the end, however, Princeton University fully honored his rights and no investigation was conducted or disciplinary action against him taken.
Princeton passed the test—and the story of how it passed the test is worth telling.
On July 4, several hundred Princetonians, faculty members, graduate students, and others published a letter to the university’s administration making dozens of demands in the name of anti-racism. Professor Katz thought some of the demands were reasonable and even desirable; but he strongly objected to others—including some that are illegal (such as making race a ground for an appointment to, or exclusion from eligibility for appointment to, a position or for receiving certain benefits) and others that are, in his view (and mine), unethical and dangerous (such as creating a faculty committee to investigate and discipline people for conducting research deemed to be racist).
Katz published an article in Quillette sharply criticizing the letter. In it, he described a now-defunct student organization as a “terrorist organization” that “made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands.” Some of the leaders and members of this organization had smeared decent and honorable people as “racists” and “white supremacists.” Some had vilified and bullied fellow students, including African-American students, who had objected to its aims and tactics.
In response to the article, the president of Princeton, Christopher Eisgruber, told the campus newspaper that he objected “personally and strongly” to Katz’s “false description” of the group which, in his view, suggested that the group had been guilty of violence (which they were not). Four of Katz’s colleagues in the Classics department, attaching their administrative titles (chair, director of graduate studies, etc.), used the departmental homepage to denounce Katz’s language as “abhorrent” and to claim that his words placed “colleagues, students, and alums at serious risk.”
Laying aside the question of whether it was appropriate for the Classics department homepage to be used in the way the four professors used it, all this was simply free speech criticizing free speech. There was, however, one more thing: A university spokesman said that the university was “looking into” what Katz had said, suggesting that his words were not protected under the university’s free speech and academic freedom principles. This was surprising because Princeton has strong, legally enforceable free speech principles written into the university’s rules, and President Eisgruber, who is himself a distinguished constitutional scholar, has been a consistent and outspoken champion of free speech in society and on campus. At the same time, it was these facts that made me confident that Katz would not be punished or retaliated against for his criticisms of the July 4 letter or his rhetoric concerning the defunct student group.
My confidence proved to be entirely justified. The university promptly decided that Katz’s speech was fully protected and informed him that no investigation would be conducted or action against him taken. Immediately, the statement condemning him on his department’s homepage came down. Free speech prevailed.
It is important to know that President Eisgruber, who under the university’s rules enjoys the same free speech rights that Katz and everyone else at Princeton possesses, holds fast to his judgment that Katz was wrong and irresponsible to use the rhetoric (“terrorist organization” that “made life miserable for . . . many”) he had used. Katz continues to disagree with that judgment, citing the targeting and smearing of others, including other students, by members of the group, and contending that his own rhetoric, in context, plainly did not accuse anyone of violence.
What should these two academics do about their disagreement? What they should do is what the two of them are in fact doing. They should respect and honor each other’s right to speak his mind. They should state their positions and give their reasons. Each should engage the reasons and arguments presented by the other. They should lay the evidence supporting their positions before any and all who wish to follow the debate, and let those who are following it decide where the truth lies, who has the superior view.
So Princeton, by declining to investigate and punish speech that the university’s president himself regards as offensive and even irresponsible, passed the test. The university has honored—and thereby reaffirmed—its commitment to free speech and robust discussion. We will debate the issue dividing Professor Katz and President Eisgruber and let people decide for themselves what they think. Some will conclude that Katz’s rhetoric, though certainly strong, was justified; others will judge Eisgruber’s strong condemnation of Katz’s language warranted. Because we at Princeton are free to say what we believe, and cannot be punished for saying the “wrong” thing (or saying the “right” thing in the “wrong” way, or refusing to say things we don’t believe), the business of truth-seeking—in campus discussions, scholarship, and teaching—can go forward in the only way it can truly go forward: in freedom.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, where he teaches constitutional interpretation and philosophy of law.
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