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Reviews | Princeton’s warning to its university community: speak at your own risk

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If Princeton classics professor Joshua Katz had kept his mouth shut in 2020, would he still have a job?

To weigh this question, we must first step back. In the mid-2000s, Katz did a very bad thing: he had sex relationship with an undergraduate student. Although the relationship was consensual, it still violated university policy and apparently caused student angst.

In 2017, the Princeton administration finally learned, and although the former student did not cooperate with the ensuing investigation, in 2018 Katz was suspended for a year without pay. Report, investigation, discovery, punishment – it was an institution appropriately dealing with and resolving a transgression, in other words.

But then, in 2021, a second an investigation was launched into the same case, this time with the cooperation of the student.

As a result, last month Katz was removed from his position and fired – which suggests to me a double risk. Worse, this second investigation gave the appearance of retaliation for an unpopular essay that Katz wrote in the meantime – a scathing criticism of a faculty open letter calling for action to address racial imbalances at Princeton. Katz released his stinging response in July 2020, when the nation’s wounds were still raw following the police killing of George Floyd, and it generated considerable controversy, including whistleblowers by Princeton’s classics department and President.

Alicia Plerhoples: Free speech cannot trump all other values ​​on campus

In his report last November recommending Katz’s dismissal, Dean Gene A. Jarrett wrote that “the current political climate at the University, whether perceived or real, has nothing to do with the matter and plays no part in my recommendation”. I believe Jarrett believes him. Yet I also think it is clear that the political controversy was the ultimate genesis of the second complaint. So while the administration may not have set out to punish Katz for his speech, it nonetheless did.

Here’s why: After Katz’s essay appeared, the campus newspaper went to look for the skeletons in Katz’s closet – which he found. In February 2021, a Daily Princetonian article revealed the relationship with his former student, as well as complaints from two other young women who were not sexually involved with Katz but said they felt uncomfortable when he offered them a dinner and, in one case, small gifts. (Katz says he’s never had another sex like thisand his defenders say he took a lot of thesis advice, “male and female same,” dinner). It was this article – and the revelation that Katz was engaged to a recent Princeton graduate – which prompted his former student to belatedly file an official complaint.

All of this suggests that Katz would never have been fired if he hadn’t expressed a controversial opinion. And fair enough, you might say – maybe having to keep your head down is a price you pay for wrongdoing. But I hope not, because it fundamentally ignores the purpose of free speech, which is not to provide individuals with a hobby. Freedom of expression is valuable because it provides the community with a robust marketplace of ideas. If we exclude everyone who has ever done something wrong, even if they have already been punished, this market is getting much poorer.

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Princeton is of course a private institution. Katz does not have the First Amendment right to speak without getting fired, nor the Fifth Amendment right against double jeopardy.

But at the same time, Princeton has a strong institutional commitment to the liberal principles embodied in those amendments, and while I understand the university’s argument that it needed to act on new information, the former Katz student was not a vulnerable undergraduate student when the investigation of 2018 took place, but a mature adult who had ample opportunity to cooperate at this time. The opening of an investigation into a new complaint raises many of the issues that have led Western legal systems to ban double jeopardy, including the danger of subjecting people to new charges every time the political winds change.

Granted, those winds were strong when Katz was re-examined: many Princetonians already saw Katz as racistand now there was Additional pressure of students who considered him a sexual predator. I’m sure Jarrett and everyone else involved in the second procedure tried to be fair, but psychological research tells us that it’s inevitably harder to give the benefit of the doubt to people whose opinions are anathema.

I have spent over a week closely reviewing this troubling case, including some of the key documents. The university has information that I don’t, including the student’s complaint. But in cases where we were looking at the same evidence, it seemed to me that the report consistently overweights things that make Katz look bad and discounts mitigating context.

Of course, I am not free from my own prejudices and I have tried hard to make Princeton’s point of view understood. But I couldn’t help but suspect that Katz might have won more grace if he hadn’t been on the wrong side of the campus controversy. In the end, I found myself thinking that’s why the second inquest simply should never have happened, even if you think the charges are justified: because this case had such inevitable political overtones, there was no way to avoid suspicion of retaliation. Sure, it’s important to discipline misconduct, but it’s also important for one of the best universities in the country to maintain an atmosphere of open inquiry — and Katz, especially here, had been disciplined before.

A signal about the dangers of speaking your mind would have been loud and clear even if the investigation had ruled in Katz’s favor – as famous criminology book proclaims: “The trial is the punishment”. But sending him back really drives the point home.

I believe Princeton when he insists does not want to repress speech. I also believe that anyone at Princeton would have to be very stupid, or very brave, not to think seriously about what happened to Katz before expressing their own unpopular opinions.

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