Defamed Professor Joshua Katz Should Sue Princeton University | Opinion

National attention has recently come to Princeton University, often rated the nation's best, over the prolonged odyssey of its distinguished classics professor Joshua T. Katz. Katz got into trouble in the wake of George Floyd's death, when he pushed back against faculty demands for "anti-racist" initiatives, including special financial and professional perquisites for Princeton faculty members "of color." Katz also objected to calls to remove campus security and to establish faculty committees to monitor colleagues' work for "racist" content.

Katz's riposte was published in Quillette in July 2020 as a self-styled "declaration of independence." He argued that race-based privileges for Ivy League professors defied common sense, that removing campus police could be dangerous and that empowering faculty committees to police scholarly work for "racism" would lead to a "star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, punishment, suspension, even dismissal." Katz also criticized a defunct campus "anti-racist" organization for having harassed Princetonians who disagreed with it.

Katz's piece was firm but polite. Until relatively recently, it would have sat well within the norms of American academic discourse, which once allowed robust discussion of reverse discrimination, public safety and free speech. No longer. Instantly, Katz became a national pariah and was widely condemned, including by Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber, who charged that Katz had failed to exercise his right of free speech "responsibly." A university spokesman ominously announced that Princeton would "be looking into the matter further."

The controversy has caused Katz serious harm. His career-long professional conduct has been placed under a microscope. He has lost professional opportunities. He and his academic work have been publicly maligned. As an accused racist, he is unemployable in virtually any other academic context, and in many related professions. In 2021, a mandatory, university-sponsored online module for incoming freshmen featured Katz as the latest offender in the history of racism at Princeton, placing him in the same category as the slaveholders among the university's founders, Princeton and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's segregationist actions, past discriminatory admissions policies and other assorted sins.

Katz's case has generated some backlash. In October 2021, a group of eight Princeton faculty members filed a complaint demanding an investigation of Katz's denunciation on Princeton's website. One of them, the distinguished mathematician Sergiu Klainerman, later wrote a lengthy article in Tablet, arguing that Katz was "punished as an example to us all not to interfere with the university's plans to remake itself as an ideological factory for the production of 'anti-racist social justice.'" Michael Poliakoff of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) wrote a strongly-worded letter arguing that Princeton "disgraces itself, failing to uphold its commitments to free expression and viewpoint diversity" and closed with his belief that "it is of the utmost importance that the Board of Trustees immediately exercise its fiduciary authority and direct the administration to restore Professor Katz to his appropriate status." Robert Shibley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) stated that Princeton's "pronouncements simply cannot be trusted. Faculty, students and alumni should avoid putting much stock in Princeton's promises of free speech or of anything else as long as the university leadership is so obviously and blatantly willing to put politics over principle." The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), a recently founded, invitation-only advocacy group for university professors, produced an earnest letter calling on Princeton "to refrain from using its administrative resources to target Professor Katz or other members of the faculty."

Student walk along the campus of Princeton
Student walk along the campus of Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

None of this has worked. Princeton Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity Michele Minter dismissed the faculty complaint, without appeal, with the sophistic explanation that smearing Katz as a racist did not target him on the basis of a "protected characteristic." Another faculty group found her decision to be procedurally improper, but no further action has resulted. Unsurprisingly, Eisgruber did not even reply to ACTA or FIRE and appears only to have replied to AFA's letter because it was written by a Princeton faculty member he personally knows. Eisgruber disclaimed any institutional responsibility for the offending material and refused to remove it on the specious grounds that to do so would "censor" the unnamed individuals who wrote it and thus violate their free speech. As if to reinforce this absurdity, just days later Princeton's Board of Trustees renewed Eisgruber's approximately $1 million annual contract for at least another five years, praising what the Board called his "outspoken commitment to free speech and academic freedom."

Some media coverage has favored Katz's position, albeit without much more than the standard "harrumphs" and "someday-they-will-pay" fist-shaking that have brought establishment conservatives nothing but catastrophic defeat for the last 50 years. Officials of Princetonians for Free Speech, an alumni group with some campus connections, editorialized at RealClearPolitics that free speech issues may, over the next few decades, make some sort of difference in university enrollments. The New Criterion, where Katz will be a visiting critic in 2022-2023, predicts that Princeton may one day collapse on the internal paradox of its contradictory commitments to free speech and social justice, but that this could take "a very long time indeed."

Katz should take comfort in the current legal climate, where juries of his peers can do a lot more than the authors of "deeply concerned" letters. In 2019, an Ohio county jury awarded $44.3 million to an off-campus bakery that Oberlin College had falsely smeared as racist after the bakery apprehended a black Oberlin student for shoplifting and assault. In the course of litigation, Oberlin's chief diversity bureaucrat went on sabbatical leave and never returned, taking a similar job at a much less prestigious university. Oberlin appealed the judgment, but in April a higher court upheld it and the university remains liable for a reduced payout of $31.3 million.

Following the final Oberlin decision, a Shawnee State University professor won a $400,000 settlement after receiving an official warning for refusing to use the preferred pronouns of a transgender student. The settlement followed a civil rights lawsuit that went to a federal appeals court and established that the professor is not required to use the pronouns in his continuing work. With that precedent now in place, it is hard to see how any other U.S. faculty member would have to endure a similar requirement, provided he/she had the guts to challenge it. Shawnee State fully acknowledged the corrective power of the legal system and the ripple effect of any such lawsuit, whining that the case was "being used to advance divisive social and political agendas"—a category its commissars apparently believe includes free speech.

Across the country, since 2014 there have been more than 700 civil rights lawsuits over investigations of supposed "discriminatory harassment," a category that includes alleged racism. More than half of those cases have resulted in either a court decision or legal settlement favorable to the plaintiff, with awards reaching ever-larger sums. Only one week after the Oberlin decision, a South Carolina jury deciding such a case awarded a former Clemson University student $5.3 million for defamation and civil conspiracy claims. Professor Katz could do at least as well.

Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.