Free Speech or Princeton’s Red Scare? (letter)

To the editor:

“Free Speech for Me, and Thee?” invites the reader to consider the place where free speech crosses the line into defamation. Princeton University’s treatment of its professor might well meet the strict legal definition of defamation: false, malicious and inflicting damage. What is utterly certain is the ethical breach of a university that is glib in attaching the loaded and harmful term “racist” to people and institutions.

Princeton is not a racist institution, despite the rhetoric of its president, Christopher Eisgruber, rhetoric that encouraged the Trump administration slyly to hold him to his word and to seek the return of the massive amounts of federal money the university received on the understanding that it did not practice illegal discrimination. Nor is Princeton’s distinguished professor of classics Joshua Katz guilty of racist action, although Princeton so identifies him on an official university website.

In his autobiography Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, tenured Princeton professor of classics Dan-el Padilla Peralta paid homage to Joshua Katz as his mentor. Professor Peralta describes how Professor Katz encouraged and championed him as he sought legal immigration status. Fifteen years later, after Professor Katz challenged faculty demands that he plausibly deemed illegal and unethical, Professor Peralta turned on him. As did Princeton’s administration, restricting his teaching opportunities and officially vilifying him.

Is President Eisgruber’s historical knowledge weak or is he a timeserver, with even weaker principles? When a Princeton website, “To Be Known and Heard,” which bears the imprimatur of the board of trustees, targeted Professor Katz for racism, it was not, as President Eisgruber asserts, freedom of speech. Putting Professor Katz alongside scenes of minstrel shows and the words of the racist scientist William Shockley (who, incidentally, has no connection to Princeton) is a devastating, arguably libelous assault. President Eisgruber’s claim that the website’s presentation of Professor Katz “is consistent in style and content with the website’s treatment of other controversies not involving him” ignores how this presentation smears his reputation. For the president to refuse to remove this defamation of the professor’s character on grounds that it would be censorship is disingenuous (at best).

Think back a few decades. In the twentieth century, the label “homo” or “queer” or “commie” was a career-killer. Universities should know: They committed plenty of such outrages. In the twenty-first century, especially in the world of higher education, the label “racist” has an even deadlier reach, given the inevitable conflagration and the cloud that forever follows the alleged offender ineradicably on social media. Is this really the world that President Eisgruber wants to (re)create? He writes, “If the website had engaged in name-calling or made derogatory comments about Dr. Katz, I would regard it as inconsistent with University values.” In fact, the website’s representation of Professor Katz does precisely that.

President Eisgruber defends himself by invoking his outrage that Professor Katz referred to the Black Justice League, a defunct campus group of students, all of whom had by that point graduated, as a “small local terrorist organization.” Really? Anyone who witnessed their humiliation of another black student who failed to endorse their agenda or how they later regrouped to bait and badger a recent Asian graduate—threatening that he would soon be unemployed—would understand Professor Katz’s disgust. But, to be clear, nothing Professor Katz said singled out an individual, never mind an individual student.

The differences are substantial. What Princeton has done officially is a targeted attack on a member of the university’s community with a charge that in 2022 evokes the worst episodes of the Red Scare and the Lavender Scare. Progressive Princeton should know better.

–Michael Poliakoff
President
American Council of Trustees & Alumni

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