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 Protecting the Lifeblood of Democracy  

A recent survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that nearly 6 in 10 Americans fear that the nation’s democracy is in peril because of the perceived dangers of open expression on controversial topics.[1] This finding is not particularly surprising, as our collective slide into a culture of speech policing and censorship is well documented. On topics like race and transgender rights, expressing a view not in line with the prescribed correct position will put one on the short list for cancellation, firing, or public shaming. Students and faculty on university campuses, historically centers of truth-seeking and open debate, are now leading the charge in reducing freedom of expression on controversial topics.

The unfortunate tale of former Princeton Professor Joshua Katz is a good case-in-point on the illiberalism to be found on college campuses. In July 2020, roughly 350 faculty members at Princeton University signed an open letter to President Christopher Eisgruber demanding that the college atone for the “powerful role” that racism plays on its campus by enacting policies that explicitly favor faculty based on the amount of melanin in their skin.[2] The letter advocated for allocating nonwhite faculty additional pay, time off, and sabbaticals to reflect the “invisible work” that they perform in combatting the racism and bigotry that abounds on an Ivy League campus where, incidentally, over half of undergraduate students are minorities.[3] The signatories also advocated for the creation of a faculty-only tribunal to investigate and discipline racist behaviors and incidents, with the criteria for what constitutes a racist act to be determined later.[4]

With hundreds of Princeton faculty openly calling for racialized compensation schemes and for the creation of a committee to scrutinize faculty writings for racism, Professor Katz made the ill-fated decision to express an opposing viewpoint. In a piece in Quillette published 4 days after the faculty letter, Katz suggested that instituting race-based compensation and inter-faculty speech policing would be a mistake on a campus theoretically committed to liberal values. The response he received was one of immediate backlash, with President Eisgruber and even Katz’s own colleagues in the Classics department publicly denouncing his essay.

Joshua Katz was ultimately fired by Princeton University in May 2022 after being re-investigated for a consensual relationship he had with a student years prior, and for which he had already been sanctioned in 2018. While the university claims that Katz’s unfashionable politics had nothing to do with him facing double jeopardy for the incident, observers can come to their own conclusions regarding the motivations for re-scrutinizing the Professor’s mistake (incidentally, the new investigations into Katz’s conduct were begun shortly after the Quillette piece’s publication in July 2020).[5]

The most important takeaway from the Katz saga and illiberalism in progressive circles more generally is that controversial topics like the one the Professor wrote about must remain open for disagreement and debate, free of shaming or censorship. At its core, freedom of speech is society’s main method of truth-seeking. But the woke ideology emanating from college campuses and other progressive centers has no interest in open expression because it has already determined the correct positions on topics like affirmative action and transgender issues. Any break from those sacred truths is to be denounced and held up to the community as evidence of bigotry.

As Americans, we believe in the free exchange of ideas, even if those ideas ruffle feathers. With crackdowns on speech happening in China and Russia, we should be safeguarding our free speech rights with more fervor than ever before. Instead, there is a growing movement among progressives to clamp down on controversial speech through public shaming and cancellation. Anyone who jumps at the chance to denounce those expressing an earnestly held, respectfully stated opposing view on hot-button topics should acknowledge that they are uninterested in a central aspect of the society they benefit from; speech free from fear of retribution.