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Opinion Princeton’s warning to its campus community: Speak at your own risk

Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. (Seth Wenig/AP)
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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 that question, first we have to back up. In the mid-2000s, Katz did a very bad thing: He had a sexual relationship with an undergraduate. While the relationship was consensual, it still violated university policy, and it apparently caused the student anguish.

In 2017, the Princeton administration finally learned about it, and though the now-former student did not cooperate with the subsequent investigation, in 2018 Katz was suspended for a year without pay. Report, investigation, finding, punishment — this was an institution appropriately addressing and resolving a transgression, in other words.

But then, in 2021, a second investigation was launched into the same matter, this time with the student’s cooperation.

As a result, last month, Katz was stripped of tenure and fired — which suggests double jeopardy to me. Worse, that second investigation has given the appearance of retaliation for an unpopular essay that Katz wrote in the interim — a sharp criticism of a faculty open letter calling for measures to address racial imbalances at Princeton. Katz published his pungent response in July 2020, when the nation’s wounds were still raw from the police murder of George Floyd, and it generated considerable controversy, including denunciations by Princeton’s classics department and president.

Alicia Plerhoples: Free speech can’t trump every other value on campus

In his report last November recommending that Katz be fired, dean Gene A. Jarrett wrote that “the current political climate of the University, whether perceived or real, is not germane to the case, nor does it play a role in my recommendation.” I believe Jarrett believes this. Yet I also think it’s clear that political controversy was the ultimate genesis of the second complaint. So while the administration might not have set out to punish Katz for his speech, that’s nonetheless effectively what it did.

Here’s why: After Katz’s essay appeared, the campus newspaper went looking for skeletons in Katz’s closet — which it 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 weren’t sexually involved with Katz but who said they had felt uncomfortable when he bought them dinner, and in one case, small gifts. (Katz says he has never had another sexual relationship like this, and his defenders say he took many thesis advisees, “male and female alike,” to dinner). It was that article — and the revelation that Katz was engaged to a recent Princeton graduate — that spurred his former student to belatedly make a formal complaint.

All of which suggests that Katz would never have been fired if he hadn’t voiced a controversial opinion. And fair enough, one might argue — maybe having to keep your head down is a price you pay for wrongdoing. But I hope not, since this fundamentally mistakes the point of free speech, which is not to provide individuals with a hobby. Free speech is precious because it provides the community with a robust marketplace of ideas. If we exclude everyone who’s ever done anything wrong, even if they’ve already been punished, that market gets a lot poorer.

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Princeton is of course a private institution. Katz has no First Amendment right to speak without getting fired, nor Fifth Amendment rights against double jeopardy.

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

Certainly, those winds were gale force when Katz was reinvestigated: Many Princetonians already viewed Katz as racist, and now there was additional pressure from students who viewed him as a sexual predator. I’m sure that Jarrett and everyone else involved in the second proceeding tried hard to be fair, but psychological research tells us it is inevitably more difficult to give benefit of the doubt to people whose views are anathema.

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

Of course I am not free of my own biases, and I tried hard to make myself see Princeton’s point of view. But I could not shake my suspicion that Katz might have gotten more grace if he had not been on the wrong side of campus controversy. Ultimately, I found myself thinking that this is why the second investigation simply should never have occurred, even if you think the charges are justified: because this case had such unavoidable political overtones, there was no way to avoid suspicions of retaliation. Of course it is important to discipline misconduct, but it is also important for one of the nation’s premier universities to maintain an atmosphere of open inquiry — and Katz, crucially here, had already been disciplined.

A signal about the dangers of speaking one’s mind would have been loud and clear even if the investigation had resolved in favor of Katz — as a famous criminology book proclaims, “The Process is the Punishment.” But firing him really drives the point home.

I believe Princeton when it insists it does not want to clamp down on speech. I also believe that anyone at Princeton would have to be very foolish, or very brave, not to think hard about what happened to Katz before voicing their own unpopular opinions.