Princeton University Has Disgraced Itself by Firing Free Speech Hero Joshua Katz | Opinion

"It is our collective responsibility not to shrug our shoulders" or accept "the normalization of untruths," Dr. Anthony Fauci told Princeton's 2022 Class Day on May 23. That same day, Princeton's Board of Trustees, acting on the recommendation of its President Christopher L. Eisgruber, fired star classics professor Joshua Katz after nearly 25 years of employment.

In July 2020, in the wake of George Floyd's killing, Katz criticized a Princeton faculty letter demanding preferential treatment for minority faculty members, the disbanding of Princeton's security, and the creation of faculty panels to police colleagues' work for supposed racism. Katz was immediately branded a racist and ostracized by his colleagues. Eisgruber condemned him for having used his freedom of speech "irresponsibly."

Princeton grudgingly admitted that Katz could not be sanctioned for his dissenting statements, but wasted no time finding a pretext to dispose of him. The student newspaper spent months muckraking through Katz's private life and confidential university business, and discovered that he had once been suspended for a consensual relationship he had with an undergraduate student, way back in 2006. Casting due process to the wind, Princeton reinvestigated the matter and cryptically determined that Katz had "misrepresented facts or failed to be straightforward" the first time.

Along the way, in August 2021 Princeton produced a mandatory "anti-racist" internet feature for incoming freshman that placed Katz in the same category as slaveholders among Princeton's founders, segregationists among its later leaders, and discriminatory admissions policies, among other sins. A group of Katz's colleagues filed a complaint on his behalf last October, but the university's diversity bureaucracy dismissed it out of hand without appeal.

In a moment worthy of Orwell, Eisgruber refused to remove the language about Katz, suggesting that doing so would "censor" the free speech of those who wrote it. A few days later, Princeton's Board of Trustees praised Eisgruber for his purported commitment to free speech and renewed his $1 million annual contract for at least the next five years.

Earlier this month, Eisgruber recommended Katz's termination to Princeton's Board. He and other university officials have sheepishly denied that it had anything to do with Katz's public speech and instead insist that it resulted from a personnel matter dredged up from 16 years ago that just happened to resurface at the exact moment the speech issue emerged.

Joshua Katz
Exterior view of the Center for the Study of Religion on the campus of Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, November 29, 2011. Oliver Morris/Getty Images

If you believe that, I have an ivory tower to sell you. To anyone even mildly capable of critical thought, Princeton appears to have transparently resuscitated a personnel matter to punish a dissenter for exercising his right to free speech while attempting to shield itself against legal claims.

As Katz's lawyer Samantha Harris put it, his abysmal treatment "will have a powerful chilling effect on free speech, because anyone who might wish to express a controversial opinion knows that they must first ask themselves if their personal life can stand up to the kind of relentless scrutiny that Dr. Katz's life was subject to."

Free speech advocates agree. "I'm embarrassed I went there," said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Judith Miller, a Princeton alumna and leading advocate for free speech, upon hearing of Katz's termination.

Katz has told the New York Times that he believes he was treated with "gross unfairness." He is understandably "angry and heartbroken." In a letter to the Wall Street Journal published just hours after he was fired, he convincingly lamented that Princeton "fed me to the cancel culture mob."

His legal claims are strong, however. "The law in New Jersey," Princeton alumnus and former New Jersey state Superior Court judge Andrew P. Napolitano told me, "requires private schools disciplining faculty members to follow basic due process. Punishing Prof. Katz again for a matter for which he has already been punished is an egregious violation of the law."

The internet slurs associating Katz with Princeton's history of racism also suggest a strong defamation claim. Colleges and universities routinely lose such cases these days, and Princeton will be hard put to deny that it branded Katz a racist and thereby caused him significant reputational harm.

Nor is it a foregone conclusion that Katz cannot recover. Last week, the University of Central Florida was legally compelled to restore psychology professor Charles Negy to employment and tenure (with back pay) after he was fired for criticizing tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Regardless of the legal outcome, Professor Katz can also take comfort in Princeton's grotesque myopia. By firing him from a prestigious job he loved for reasons that look absurd and downright shifty, it has simultaneously made him a figure of national importance, with almost every major news outlet covering his story. Once the sting fades, he may well realize that he is now a public intellectual of greater stature and higher moral authority than all other classics professors in America combined.

Shorn of his affiliation with a disreputable university that exerts a frightful amount of control over the speech, behavior, and private lives of its employees—and no longer weighed down by the groupthink of creepy conformist colleagues there—he now has the ultimate freedom to say and do what he wants without reference to a failing academic culture that will soon be dead and buried.

It smarts to lose a job, but it is wonderful to be handed a megaphone. Let us look forward to hearing Professor Katz use his.

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

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