“We have a right to say what we think is right to say, but a climate of fear is permeating academia and threatening this right.”
— Prof. Elizabeth Weiss
Dr. Elizabeth Weiss makes no bones about her belief that some Native American remains should be preserved and studied to better understand the past rather than be repatriated—that is, returned to tribes for reburial.
“I’ve never made that a secret,” explains Elizabeth, a fully tenured physical anthropology professor at San Jose State University (SJSU). “In fact, I’ve been encouraged throughout my career to write about my perspective, even though it’s not shared by most scholars in my field.”
Indeed, in 2017, when Elizabeth applied for a leave of absence to write a book critiquing repatriation laws such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), her academic superiors didn’t just acknowledge the potential for controversy; they embraced it.
Anthropology Department Chair Roberto González wrote a full-throated endorsement predicting that “since Dr. Weiss holds a controversial position on NAGPRA,” her book “is likely to spark lively discussions among various stakeholders” and “might potentially boost the department’s national reputation as a center that fosters creative and unorthodox viewpoints on important public issues.”
William Jacobs, dean of the College of Social Sciences, even scrawled in his own handwriting, “Dr. Weiss’s project promises to not only advance the reputation of the Anthro department as a place of cutting-edge research, it will benefit the community through increased discussion of the knowledge about NAGPRA. I highly recommend the project.”
These accolades vanished once Repatriation and Erasing the Past rolled off the press in 2020. Though peer-reviewed and published through a reputable academic press, the book ignited a firestorm. Critics ignored the book’s merits and launched a barbarous social media and letter-writing campaign that tarred Elizabeth as anti-indigineous and racist, and shamed the university for supporting her.
Rather than defending Elizabeth, the university piled on—including the very same people who supported Elizabeth’s book in the first place.
Department Chair González, who previously said the book “aligns neatly” with his department’s focus of “Knowledge in Action,” sharply criticized her book publicly and sponsored an “anti-racism” speaker series that called for shutting down views such as hers.
During a Zoom event that Dean Jacobs hosted for SJSU deans and chairs entitled “What to Do When a Tenured Professor Is Branded a Racist,” González called Elizabeth his “racist colleague,” accused her of making “classic racist arguments in her work,” and said allowing her to teach students her views would be “unethical.”
“I was shocked at how spineless they are,” recalls Elizabeth. “It’s a sign of how much power has been ceded to the woke mob that people who, for more than a decade, supported my writing, actively promoted my unique perspective, and awarded me the college’s highest scholarship award so quickly abandoned their principles.”
Elizabeth was concerned about her academic freedom and asked González and Jacobs to assure her no retaliation would spill into the classroom or research labs. They refused. González also refused to retract threats he made if she taught her views to students.
That’s when Elizabeth contacted PLF. “Because I knew that this was not going to stay on the level of an interdepartmental squabble.”
PLF wrote a letter on Elizabeth’s behalf warning the university that any retaliation for her speech would violate the norms of academic freedom and the First Amendment.
The battle intensified a few weeks later, however, when Elizabeth published an op-ed in The Mercury News and East Bay Times critical of recent changes to CalNAGPRA, the state repatriation law, using arguments from her book.
As emails flooded the university demanding Elizabeth be disciplined or fired, the backlash reached an apex of ridiculousness after Elizabeth tweeted a picture of herself holding a skull from the SJSU skeletal collection with the text, “So happy to be back with some old friends.”
Photos of scientists holding skeletal remains are neither uncommon nor controversial, and several appear on SJSU’s own website. As the university’s sole physical anthropologist and the collections coordinator since 2004, Elizabeth was simply excited to be back after a 17-month, pandemic-induced absence.
“I took the skull out and I thought, ‘Wow. This is why I’m here,’” she recalls. “This is the beauty of understanding the past.”
In yet another knee-jerk response, the university cut off Elizabeth from the collection necessary for her work.
“I’ve never seen a university move so fast on a facilities order. It was like a midnight change of locks,” she says. “It wasn’t even about the photo. It was because I disagreed with a popular perspective of repatriation, and the mob came after me for it.”
Elizabeth is exactly right. The university doesn’t consider her views to be legitimate speech.
But the Constitution does. Represented at no charge by PLF, Elizabeth is fighting back.
“The First Amendment protects the right to research, write about, and teach differing perspectives, free of viewpoint discrimination and retaliation,” says PLF attorney Daniel Ortner. “Perspectives that break with conventional wisdom or woke ideology are no exception. The university can take certain actions against faculty members, but it can’t retaliate against protected speech.”
“We have a right to say what we think is right to say, but a climate of fear is permeating academia and threatening this right,” says Elizabeth. “I cannot just stand by and let it happen. We’re going down a dangerous road if we do not allow people to express a different perspective.”
Our right to free speech— including academic research, writing, and instruction—deserves the highest level of constitutional protection. Government officials cannot retaliate against or suppress expression just because they disagree with the speaker’s viewpoint.
To Our Donors
Free speech doesn’t end when you step onto a university campus. Professors should not be punished for discussing controversial issues. Your support for PLF empowers professors like Dr. Elizabeth Weiss to fight back against the government’s efforts to cancel voices that dissent from popular orthodoxy. Thank you!Donate
PLF is proud to receive a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, America’s premier independent nonprofit evaluator. A top rating recognizes PLF’s commitment to responsible stewardship of the resources our donors generously provide.