Free Speech and Due Process at Princeton: The Case of Joshua Katz

My longtime Princeton University colleague Joshua Katz, a distinguished classicist and linguistics scholar, was recently dismissed from his tenured position by Princeton in a case that has received international attention. I was Professor Katz’s official Adviser in Princeton’s disciplinary system through the course of the entire four-year long ordeal that resulted in his dismissal. In that capacity, I came to possess information that is privileged or confidential, and therefore cannot be shared. I will herein discuss only information that is already publicly known.

As a matter of full disclosure, I should note that when Professor Katz asked me to serve as his Adviser, which is something I had done for others over the course of my time at Princeton, he and I were mere acquaintances (though I knew him by reputation as an outstanding scholar, and an exceptionally gifted and dedicated teacher). We have since become close friends.

Princeton conducted two investigations into conduct by Professor Katz in connection with a consensual but (under the university’s rules) impermissible relationship he had with a student under his supervision in the mid-2000s. The first investigation was conducted a bit over a decade after the affair had taken place, when a third party informed university officials about what had happened. When those officials confronted Professor Katz, he immediately admitted to the offense. Essentially, he pled guilty to having had the affair.

The former student with whom Professor Katz had the relationship was asked by the university’s investigators to assist in the investigation and disciplinary process, including by making any claims she had against Professor Katz arising out of the affair and providing evidence. She declined to make allegations of any kind, refused to participate in the proceedings, and expressed disapproval of the proceedings going forward.

Unbeknownst to me, she and Professor Katz had remained in communication (though with no personal meetings, or romantic or sexual elements in the relationship), and she expressed to him the desire to have her privacy respected and not to be dragged into the matter. He told her that he would answer all questions put to him by the investigators fully and truthfully, but would not on his own initiative discuss or seek to involve her in any way. The proceedings went forward, eventually resulting in a punishment consisting of a one-year suspension without pay. Professor Katz was also required to meet regularly for four years with a counselor. Properly, none of this was publicly disclosed at the time.

After serving his sentence, Professor Katz returned to teaching, but soon became the subject of controversy when he publicly criticized a July 4, 2020 “Faculty Letter” from colleagues making demands for new Princeton policies (or alterations of existing policies) in order to combat alleged systemic racism. Some of the demands were aimed at creating university policies that would jeopardize academic freedom. Others would have subjected the university to possible legal liability for violations of laws prohibiting differential treatment based on racial classifications (including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964).

As Professor Katz noted, the Faculty Letter contained

dozens of proposals that, if implemented, would lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate. Some examples: ‘Reward the invisible work done by faculty of color with course relief and summer salary’ and…‘constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.’

In his article, published by Quillette, Professor Katz also referred to a by-then-defunct student organization (whose members had graduated) as “a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the students (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands.” This language outraged some on the campus left, and Professor Katz’s article, titled “A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor,” was condemned by Princeton’s President, Christopher Eisgruber.

Bravo to this honesty. Since May I have gotten almost an email a day from a professor who fears speaking out against the modern distortion of progressivism would get them fired. https://t.co/iOhF1p9cKD— John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) July 12, 2020

A university spokesman—not the President—went further by suggesting that Professor Katz might be subjected to some sort of investigation for his words. A little over a week later, President Eisgruber made clear that this would not happen, and reaffirmed Princeton’s strong respect for freedom of speech. I praised President Eisgruber for standing firm on the principle of not punishing protected speech, even when he himself regarded the content of the speech as profoundly wrong. (As it happens, I had intimate personal knowledge of the mistreatment of black students by the group that Professor Katz had criticized. Based on that knowledge, I did not think what he said about the group was out of line. It certainly was not racist—quite the opposite.)

In this time of testing, Princeton University and its leadership passed the test--as I knew it would--remaining true to our principles even as passions we are all feeling flare. https://t.co/0hUs9mP99U— Robert P. George🇻🇦🇺🇸🪕 (@McCormickProf) July 28, 2020

That is where the matter should have ended. Regrettably, it did not.

Woke elements on campus, including at the student newspaper, were angry with President Eisgruber as well as Professor Katz. They began trying to dig up dirt, to find another way to get the professor disciplined—even fired. They had heard rumors of an affair with a student and noticed that Professor Katz seemed to have had an unexplained off-cycle leave of absence. They demanded information about the matter from the university.

Initially, the university was prepared to stick to its standard practice of responding to such “demands” by saying that it does not discuss personnel matters. Soon, however, university officials informed Professor Katz that either he would have to tell campus media about the disciplinary action that the university had taken against him, or they would do so. We pleaded with university officials to stick to its standard practice. But they refused.

So, basically having no choice, Professor Katz told the story. Most unfortunately, at this point, the alumna with whom he’d had the affair (by now, nearly a decade and a half earlier) turned on him and filed complaints with the university. She made various claims, but only one survived and became the focus of a new investigation. This was the claim, now publicly known, that during their affair, Professor Katz discouraged the woman from receiving needed mental health care in order to prevent their relationship from being revealed.

In certain subsequent (non-contemporaneous) email communications with the woman, he seemed to have confessed to doing this. This “confession,” however, was in the context of trying to calm her down when she was obviously extremely upset; and, as the full email record shows, he was “confessing” to every allegation she made against him, including ones that were demonstrably untrue.

In my official role as Adviser, I argued that a second investigation should not take place because it resembled what, in the criminal justice system, would be double jeopardy—i.e., subjecting an accused person to a second prosecution for the same offense. The woman had been given every opportunity, and had indeed been encouraged, to make allegations and provide evidence of wrongdoing in the first investigation. She declined to do so. Indeed, she opposed the investigation and refused to participate. It would therefore be wrong to investigate and discipline Professor Katz a second time for allegations arising out of the nexus of facts that gave rise to the first investigation and to the punishment imposed in light of Professor Katz’s confession of guilt.

Although I continue to believe that my argument regarding double jeopardy was sound and should have been accepted, ending this whole business, it was rejected at every level of the disciplinary proceedings, including when the university President recommended to the Board of Trustees that Professor Katz be fired.

My difference of opinion with top university officials does not concern free speech. It concerns due process. These officials, as I understand their position, believe that because the specific allegation made by the woman was new, investigating it, prosecuting it, and punishing Professor Katz on this basis did not amount to trying someone twice for the same offense. For the reasons indicated, I disagree (even if what we are talking about here is a university disciplinary proceeding, to which the constitutional prohibition on double jeopardy in criminal cases does not apply).

Having said that, however, it must be added that the second investigation would not have been initiated if it hadn’t been for student journalists and others with a vendetta against Professor Katz, and who were seeking to dig up dirt on him because they disliked his expressed views. This element really makes the whole business a terrible injustice as well as a personal tragedy—as well as drawing in the issue of free speech, albeit in an indirect and complicated way.

I should add that I personally do not believe that Professor Katz actually tried to prevent the woman with whom he was having an illicit affair from getting the mental health care she needed: As noted above, his emailed assent to this accusation came in a context in which he might have confessed to any number of fictional crimes. But again, this difference of opinion between me and university officials is not about free speech, but rather about interpreting the available evidence. (There were other claims against Professor Katz that arose during the second disciplinary procedure, and which were mentioned by the university. On these, too, I disagree with the findings that President Eisgruber ultimately accepted, though I won’t go into the details here, as they are secondary to my broader argument that the entire second investigation was a form of double jeopardy.)

There was also a separate scandal that arose from the manner by which (as yet still unidentified) university bureaucrats smeared Professor Katz as a racist through a freshman training program called “To Be Known and Heard: Systemic Racism and Princeton University”—even going so far as to bowdlerize a quotation from him as a means to support this defamation. Specifically, the words “including the many black students” were removed from the aforementioned quotation, “a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the students (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands.” The document also contained statements from detractors, such as “[Katz] seems not to regard people like me [a Black professor] as essential features, or persons, of Princeton,” with no opportunity for Katz or anyone supporting him to reply.

I can think of no possible explanation for this outrageous conduct other than it being a form of harassment and retaliation against Professor Katz for his speech. When the office responsible for the freshman-orientation materials was called out for the doctoring of the quotation (Professor Katz’s lawyer, Samantha Harris, had complained to the university counsel’s office directly about this issue) someone restored the full quotation on the “To Be Known and Heard” web site. But the university refused to apologize to Professor Katz or—and this is critical—inform the students to whom he had been smeared that the quotation had been bowdlerized and had to be corrected. So the correction was essentially meaningless and did not undo the injustice to Professor Katz.

A group of professors led by mathematician Sergiu Klainerman filed a grievance in their own names, not on behalf of Professor Katz himself, demanding an investigation into who had retaliated against him by weaponizing the university’s freshman-orientation materials in this manner. Two Princeton officers, the Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity and the head of the Human Resources department, were evidently assigned to look into the matter and respond to Professor Klainerman and his co-complainants. In a ruling that I found ridiculous, these officials rejected the complaint on various grounds.

Perhaps only people who lived under communism fully grasp what is wrong with American universities today. Sergiu Klainerman defends Joshua Katz and exposes the doublethink of @Princeton's President Eisgruber: https://t.co/Ao7e1ft5g8— Niall Ferguson (@nfergus) April 12, 2022

Professors Klainerman et al. eventually appealed to a standing faculty committee that has the power to review faculty complaints against administrators’ actions and make recommendations (the Princeton Committee on Conference and Faculty Appeal being its full name). I understand from reports that I regard as completely reliable that the committee ruled in favor of the Klainerman group, and against the two officers who had dismissed their complaint, unanimously on every count.

And so even though Professor Katz has already been terminated, important issues surrounding his mistreatment persist, as the Committee on Conference and Faculty Appeal’s apparent recommendation of a full investigation of the defamation of Professor Katz by university officials now sits with President Eisgruber. A public statement by the President made in response to a public letter authored on behalf of the Academic Freedom Alliance by Keith Whittington—a Princeton professor and an eminent scholar of constitutional law who’s literally written the book on campus free speech—suggests that the president views the statements about Professor Katz contained in the freshman orientation materials as themselves protected speech under Princeton’s free-speech policies. I strongly disagree with this characterization, as Princeton’s free-speech rules expressly exclude expression that “falsely defames a specific individual.” And I hope that, on reflection, and in light of the findings by the aforementioned faculty committee, President Eisgruber will order an independent investigation of the smearing of Professor Katz, with attendant disciplinary proceedings concerning those responsible.

There is no question in my mind as to whether Katz was defamed—treatment exacerbated by the fact that the freshman-orientation materials are promulgated to a captive student audience. Nor am I in any doubt as to whether the underlying motives were malicious. The bowdlerization of Professor Katz’s words was done with the evident intention of depicting him as racist—which he is not. The only real questions are who is responsible, and what is the proper disciplinary action under the university’s rules.

If Princeton bureaucrats, whoever they are, can get away with retaliating against a professor for his protected speech by smearing him in this way, then the university’s formal free-speech protections are mere parchment guarantees. President Eisgruber, himself an eminent First Amendment scholar, should understand what is at stake here. He has always been a powerful defender of free speech and other basic civil liberties. (I should add, again as a matter of full disclosure, that he and I are old friends.)

I have publicly praised him for those qualities and, as noted herein, acknowledged that his decision regarding the second investigation of Professor Katz does not directly compromise free-speech principles. Thus, I have reason to hope that a proper understanding of what is and isn’t protected speech under university policies will guide him toward an appreciation of the injustice done to Joshua Katz.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/06/10/free-speech-and-due-process-at-princeton-the-case-of-joshua-katz/
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Thank you Mr. George for your courage in speaking out against this mistreatment of Professor Katz. As an insider you are able to shed valuable light on the process.

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To me it is not surprising that these kind of issues are so acute in universities, and especially in privileged universities.
The privileged professors teaching at those universities and the privileged students attending them belong to a very specific social class, which i call the class of people who have a lot to lose.
People who have a lot to lose have always been cowards, and always ready to acquiesce to anything in order to keep their positions.
Because of this, they are also very easy to intimidate and threaten, and it’s easy to see there are many more categories belonging to this class, like journalists and artists etc.
This situation has been used by groups of people to their own advantage, while neither the students nor the professors dared to take a stance against it.
The general consensus seems to be “shut up and mind your own business, avoid trouble”.
Unless people start taking a stance and resisting, making their voices heard, things are going to get worse.
You can blame the heads of university all you want, but how come nobody stood up for this professor?
It’s the silence of the many, not the voices of a few that got us here.
Wonder what happened to the revolutionary spirit of youth in universities. They look down quietly, while a group of noisy militants walk all over them.
Maybe the problem starts in elementary schools where kids are taught to be ashamed to be white and male and show deference to Blacks (intentional caps for sarcasm purposes).

There is one more thing, Joshua Katz seems to be for diversity and inclusion policies, and for encouraging of minorities (from a 2020 Quillette article).
The problem is once you give in to woke mentalities, there is no way to stop the ensuing avalanche.
Once you admit one false premise as being true, you will be forced to accept other false premises too, as nicely exemplified in one of Nasreddin Hodja’s stories Cauldron | Read Literature

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I thank Professor George for writing this piece.

I do not know Christopher Eisgruber personally, but his behavior in this affair - condemning the content of Katz’s piece in Quillette, and recommending his firing to the Board of Trustees - indicates to me that his various pronouncement about free speech are meaningless.

It is ironic that any Princeton graduate student who in a dissertation either plagiarized or deliberately changed a quote so as to change its meaning - as the university itself did in this case - would be disciplined, possibly suspended or even expelled, for having violated academic norms. Hypocrisy is not a winning formula for maintaining academic integrity.

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This astonishing story gets worse every time I see something about it. The reputation of Princeton is being destroyed.

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No skeleton unturned in the pursuit of ideological conformity seems to be the modus operandi of the activists. It’s not about the individual cases of injustice, even though we should have sympathy for those who are defamed and smeared. It is about the Dictatorship of the Small Minority, who would use often baseless accusations to advance a twisted and perverse ideology completely divorced from reality.

What they simply don’t understand is that when your sense-making mechanisms are so fundamentally broken that they lead to erroneous beliefs, then the practical results of those beliefs only lead to unnecessary suffering. societal damage and ultimately failure. Here is what their ideas recently bought them- a process likely to soon be repeated across America:

It’s not as though there aren’t a plethora of Reform options which can and do work, which have been proven in other countries- but when your ideology precludes the discussion of basic facts on the ground, even to the point of silencing critics or those who present the real empirical evidence, then the only results are likely to be pure unmitigated disaster, and an eventual series of setbacks and reversals, which leaves one standing no further forwards than when one began. It is possible to change things for the better, but ‘good intentions’ pursued to the extent that anyone who disagrees with you must be evil and be silenced is not the way to go about it. This is what the adults in the room should have told the petulant children in the student body. Here is what does work, by the way:

As usual, my essays are to found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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I’ve been following this story and appreciate the extra background and detail this article provides.

Clearly Dr. George invested a lot of time and thought into this entire process, and in a careful, neutral way, has expressed his disapproval for what happened to Dr. Katz. That is the purview of this particular essay, so fine.

That said, I would love to know Dr. George’s thoughts on the deeper issue of the ideological mania (or one might say, madness) which is behind this, and most every, cancellation. And I don’t mean to single Dr. George out here - I wonder what other professors at Princeton and other elite universities think on this, as well. University rules and processes are not the real point.The “root cause”, one might say, is the crazily skewed view progressives have of the world and its problems, and the emotion/zealotry this worldview has created. Dr. George and all the other Princeton professors are on the front lines here, each in his or her own way. I think they should address the underlying causes, not just the symptoms.

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That’s a perfectly legitimate point of view, OTOH it is ‘rules and processes’ that are supposed to be the protections against whatever mania might happen to strike. People and even institutions are entitled to their ideology but they are not entitled to ignore fundamental protections enjoyed by everyone. In this case Princeton is clearly violating its own stated principles and the resurrection of a long dead issue is transparently done for ideological reasons – Katz clearly does not have a pure mind.

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Yeah, I mean, we definitely need to protect the rules and processes, I agree. Sometimes it seems like they’re almost all we have left! It just seems like Princeton professors ought to be worrying about more than just processes right now. Like kaay said above (I’m paraphrasing), any time you accept a false pretense as true, you can expect more trouble down the road.

Apparently, a significant percentage of Princeton students (and maybe staff and faculty) can justify illiberal and intolerant behavior because they believe it’s the lesser evil to some imagined, ongoing oppression of certain racial groups. I wonder where Dr. George, or the other profs, are on this? Do they ever think, you know, maybe we ought to try to correct the record a little bit here - get some perspective, look at illiberalism throughout history, voice of reason, all that? Where are the adults, is what I’m saying?

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And they are under assault. I don’t disagree that what is left of our intelligencia should be trying to figure the whole thing out, but what is up close and personal is when the fundamental freedoms are attacked. The storms of ideological manias come and they go, but the seawall of basic liberties and essential institutions must hold.

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I view cultural movements through the lens of Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of Revolution. In his system a reign of terror or woke-aholism is the result of the failure of the movement’s faith in heaven on earth.

Especially when the movement is political, the reason for the failure must be an Enemy, because politics must have an enemy.

Our ruling class knew – oh, how it knew! – that its educated, administrative system would help the worker, then the women, then the blacks, then the planet, then the LGBTs and so on.

In fact, the rule of the educated administrators has Made Things Worse. Workers? Dying of despair. Women? Less happy than in the Fifties. Blacks? Shooting each other in big-city gang warfare. Universities? Churning out gubmint-funded rubbish propaganda.

Of course our noble academicians are fit to be tied. Everything has gone wrong, and the only possible reason is racist-sexist-homophobe male white oppressors – not to mention armed insurrectionists.

I say that politics is the royal road to injustice. If politics is your religion, and you teach young heads full of mush that the highest and best form of life is political activism, then bad things are going to happen.

But maybe the best thing in the world is for the university system to collapse in woke name-calling, as the author describes at Princeton.

I suggest that when we rebuild education out of the ruins that we revise the First Amendment to read that, apart from anything else, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of education, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, etc.” (Wow! What a concept!)

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Brilliant idea.

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I suspect that your “old friend” defended these liberties when the price wasn’t very high. The economics of sacrifice have shown him for what he is; a cowardly opportunist.

But your article shows within it where the rot lies: that your university has departments of bureaucrats devoted to “equity and inclusion” or whatever, is the problem. All bureaucracies must justify themselves. You created the “Department of the Moral Cudgel” and are now wondering why they go around beating people with clubs…

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I am black. I am white.

The current progressive affair with strict racial and sex/gender categorisation of humanity will die a horrible death.

It’s basically American slave/master mentality yanked (nice term) into the modern world.

Most (99% of) living “African Americans” are less than 50% African DNA. That means that they are more liable to pay reparations than to receive reparations. Their ancestors were mostly slave owners or completely uninvolved.

Most PoC’s in America nowadays have no genetic/ancestral slave heritage.

Why are you still obsessing about this?

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Or just give it up. Women and black people are always right and what gives you the right as an old white man to even complain?

You just don’t possess the necessary credentials.

Love it :rofl:

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