Firing of Princeton University Professor Raises Questions Over Free Expression and Due Process
Issue Is Whether Objectionable Speech Becomes a Catalyst for Reprisals for Conduct Left Unpunished Otherwise.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
“Princeton University’s decision to fire classics professor Joshua Katz, in the aftermath of Katz’s controversial but protected speech in an op-ed, raises serious questions about free expression and due process on Princeton’s campus. Investigations of Katz by Princeton’s administration and by The Daily Princetonian revealed major policy violations and findings of deeply problematic behavior toward students that dated back to the mid-2000s, some of which form the official grounds for Katz’s termination. Crucially, however, many of these allegations were already known to administrators and had already been adjudicated by the university some years ago, with resulting disciplinary action against Katz. If Katz deserved to be fired for violations of Princeton’s policies, such action should have taken place at that time. The protection of students is a university’s essential responsibility, and if a university has a pattern of turning a blind eye to violative conduct, that should be addressed through a systematic effort to strengthen policies and accountability. In this case, the University has not made a persuasive case in terms of new allegations or evidence that are the basis for arriving at a drastically different outcome now. As a result, the question unavoidably arises as to whether Katz’s speech, made in the period between the two investigations of his behavior and deeply offensive to many, contributed to his firing. When speech has been a precipitating trigger leading to the reopening of an inquiry into conduct, the consequences of such a probe unavoidably redound back to the expression that set the inquiry in motion.
Without clear indications that offensive speech forms part of a pattern of harassing conduct, the expression of controversial or even offensive views should not be the impetus for the university to dissect unrelated behavior going back decades or to reopen formal investigations of previously adjudicated conduct. If that becomes the norm, institutions risk becoming environments wherein speech is technically protected, but objectionable speech becomes a catalyst for reprisals for other conduct that would otherwise have gone unpunished. In such circumstances the protection of speech is significantly weakened, and there exists a powerful disincentive for expressing views that may give rise to reproach. Incidents involving controversial speech should not be the impetus to embark on a delayed reckoning with inadequate or incomplete university accountability systems for specific incidents of prior conduct in violation of campus policies. The sequence of events leading to Katz’s termination sets a troubling precedent for academic freedom and will have a chilling effect on faculty at universities that purport to defend free speech and academic freedom, but nonetheless engage in proxy reprisals for its exercise.”
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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.
Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057