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The Freedom to Assign Controversial Books

It is not every day that a government minister writes to an American university president demanding that a book be immediately removed “from the curriculum of any of its courses” and “conduct a thorough review of the academic materials” used in its classes. But such is the demand that Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism has issued to President Christopher Eisgruber of Princeton University.

In recent days it has come to the attention of the national media in both the United States and Israel that an assistant professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University is assigning a controversial book to students who will take a seminar at the university in the upcoming fall semester. The book in question is The Right to Maim by Rutgers University professor Jasbir Puar. The book is published by Duke University Press and is billed as an application of “Foucauldian biopolitics” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Critics see it a bit differently. Ronald Lauder of the World Jewish Congress called on Princeton to “cancel the course in question immediately” and “fire its professor” for fomenting “hate speech.” International Legal Forum CEO Arsen Ostrovsky characterized the book propagating “a modern-day antisemitic blood libel” and should be banned from the class in order to avoid creating “hostile and discriminatory environments for students, such as one that will inevitably be created as a result of the use such antisemitic and inflammatory material.” The university has yet to comment.

Unfortunately, the demand that students be protected from problematic books is an age-old one and is once again a live one in the United States. Such efforts to restrict access to disturbing books has most recently focused on primary and secondary education, where the state has an unusually strong hand in setting the approved curriculum and schools must grapple with how and when difficult subjects should be introduced to minor students. It should not be surprising, however, that such demands might make their way into universities as well.

Activists on both the left and the right have insisted that universities should be made into safe spaces where students can be sheltered from disturbing and offensive speakers, materials, and ideas. Professor Stephen Kershnar is still banned from setting foot on the SUNY-Fredonia campus because he talked about his book, Pedophilia and Adult Child Sex: A Philosophical Analysis, on a podcast. It is not hard to imagine a university barring professors from assigning that book in their classes. With universities trying to stay in the good graces of conservative state legislatures, some university presidents might be tempted to prohibit their faculties from assigning Kimberle Crenshaw or Ibram Kendi to their students. With the controversy at Hamline University and the attack on Salman Rushdie fresh in mind, might a university president think it a safer course to ban professors from assigning books visually depicting or satirizing the Prophet Muhammad? If Charles Murray can be shouted down, can a professor assign students to read The Bell Curve? The controversy surrounding this seminar at Princeton might well be a sign of things to come.

We have had this fight before. Some of the earliest fights over academic freedom in American universities involved university officials prohibiting professors from assigning controversial books in their classes.  In 1880, the New York Times breathlessly covered the battle between pioneering sociologist William Graham Sumner and Yale University President Noah Porter over a book assignment. Sumner had assigned Herbert Spencer’s The Study of Sociology in his class. Sumner and Spencer were leading “Social Darwinists” in the late nineteenth century, and Porter had strong views about the “so-called science” of sociology. Sumner threatened to resign over Porter’s “interference with my work,” and they eventually found a compromise. In the early twentieth century as state legislatures debated whether evolution could be taught in public schools, a dean at the University of Tennessee rescinded a professor’s book order and fired the professor for applying the theory of evolution to humans.

In response to such controversies, a fundamental demand of the emerging movement in favor of academic freedom in the United States was the insistence that university officials not interfere with how professors taught their classes. The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure endorsed by the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges laid out three core principles of academic freedom. One was that “teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” That commitment has found its way into university policies across the country. We may well soon see whether the courts are also willing to recognize this as a First Amendment principle.

As a result, the right of university professors to assign their preferred books to a class without interference from university administrators is one of the fundamental features of academic freedom in the United States. The critical consideration from the university’s perspective is not whether an assigned book is controversial, hateful, or wrong, but whether it is germane to the class being taught. If a book is relevant to the subject matter, it is up to the professional judgment of the faculty member as to whether it should be used.

The professor might be wise or unwise in making such an assignment, and a professor might reasonably come in for public criticism for how they design or run their classes. But criticism must stop short of interference. If a work is relevant to the subject matter of the class, it does not matter whether others regard it as offensive or wrong. Students arriving at a university should expect that they will sometimes encounter readings and ideas that they regard as contemptible or erroneous.

The outrage surrounding the Princeton seminar is also entirely premature. Professors assign readings with which they disagree all the time. It is a routine feature of university classes to criticize and analyze controversial materials and not simply to absorb them uncritically. A professor may be justly criticized for behaving incompetently or unprofessionally if that professor attempts to present roundly rejected ideas as if they were widely accepted or tries to insulate controversial ideas from criticism. Professors should not attempt to indoctrinate or misinform students. But the mere fact that a professor assigns a controversial or mistaken text for undergraduate students to read is no reason to think that the professor is engaged in unprofessional misconduct.

It would be outrageous for a university president to unilaterally prohibit the assignment of any given book in a university class. Universities address bad ideas through discussion and debate, not through gag orders.


August 2023