The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Academic Freedom

Academic Freedom Alliance Letter to Princeton University

Campus administratve unit crosses a line in campaign to shame a sitting member of the faculty


The Academic Freedom Alliance released a public letter to Princeton University calling on the university to reaffirm the academic freedom of classics professor Joshua Katz.

On July 8, 2020, Professor Joshua Katz published an opinion piece in an online journal reacting to the July 4th public letter signed by many members of the Princeton faculty. In that piece he criticized a student group that had operated on campus a few year earlier and hyperbolically characterized it as a "small local terrorist group." This piece generated a series of responses on campus, including the university's spokesman claim that Professor Katz would be investigated for potential disciplinary action as a result of his extramural speech. More recently, in a university-sponsored freshman orientation event Professor Katz was singled out for criticism by the Carl Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding. On a website of the university and co-sponsored by myriad university administrative units including the Office of the Vice Provost of Institutional Equity and Diversity, Professor Katz is held out as an example of a professor making a racist statement and is shown being denounced by the university president, the Classics department, and the chairs of two academic units for engaging in racist speech.

The AFA has not adopted a position on whether institutional speech by universities on issues of public controversy is ever appropriate, but it is a deeply problematic practice for administrative units on campus to use their institutional resources and programming to engage in ongoing public shaming campaigns directed against individual members of the faculty. It is not clear what, if any, boundary there might be on university deans and vice presidents using their offices to vilify members of the faculty.

As we write in the letter:

It is hard to see the actions of the Carl Fields Center as anything other than ongoing retaliation for Professor Katz's speech. For university officials in their individual capacities to sharply criticize a professor for his speech is one thing. For the administration to memorialize criticism and to highlight it as the introduction of every student to the university campus is something else. We are not aware of any other example of a university systematically denouncing a sitting member of its own faculty in such a way. It is not an example that should be followed or repeated if universities are to remain vibrant centers of intellectual freedom.

The university climate would quickly become poisonous and intolerable if administrative units on campus made it a practice to hold up dissenting members of the faculty for ritual condemnation and if the precedent now being set were followed in the future.  If the Office of the Vice President for Campus Life uses its administrative position on campus to organize official university programming for the purpose of heaping opprobrium on faculty for expressing disfavored personal political opinions, the risks of chilling speech on campus are severe. The university can hardly create a climate welcoming of heterodox opinions if it creates an administrative apparatus to target the heterodox and stamp them as campus pariahs.