June 9, 2004: A moment with...

Photo by Frank Wojciechowski

Christopher Eisgruber ’83

As he finished his last semester before becoming Princeton’s provost, Christopher Eisgruber ’83, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the University Center for Human Values, was focusing his attention on issues of civil liberties. It is a subject Eisgruber, a former Supreme Court clerk and law professor, has studied and written about for more than a decade. He recently spoke to PAW’s Mark F. Bernstein ’83.

You recently wrote about the effects of the September 11 attacks on civil liberties. How difficult is it to balance liberty and security?

The key question that has to be asked is, how do we adapt our civil liberties to changed circumstances after September 11? Often the question is not asked that way. Instead people ask, do we keep our civil liberties or give them up? I think that presents a very unsatisfactory choice because people conclude that we either must be heavily constrained in the ways in which we can respond to very serious threats or be forced to sacrifice liberties we rightly cherish.

According to some opinion polls, the U.S.A. Patriot Act enjoys broad public support. Doesn’t that suggest that the public is satisfied with the balance that currently is being struck?

I think it varies a lot, in part because the U.S.A. Patriot Act stands for different things in different people’s minds. It used to be that when I gave talks about these issues I would bring a copy of the U.S.A. Patriot Act with me because few people had seen it. It’s about 400 pages long and very technical, so that even a lawyer reading through it could not understand most of what it does. People tend to be comfortable with some parts of it and very uncomfortable with others. For example, many are uncomfortable with the idea that the Patriot Act increases the authority of the government to have librarians divulge which books have been checked out and to gag the librarians from even talking about the order. People are concerned [about terrorism], but there is also a deep liberty-regarding streak in American culture.

Courts traditionally have been deferential to the executive branch during times of war, even when it comes to infringing on civil liberties. Should there be more judicial supervision in this area?

One of the ways we adapt civil liberties is by coming up with new measures to keep the government accountable. That’s part of what civil liberties are. Perhaps the most important principle is that when the government wants to use its power against you, it has to give reasons to somebody else who can judge those reasons. So I suggest that there are types of protections that could be adopted to help hold the government accountable in these new circumstances. One is the use of “sunshine” measures, which would require the government to disclose what it’s doing. The second kind might be called gatekeeping measures. Since September 11, the boundaries have been blurred between the criminal-justice system, in which there are a lot of procedural protections, and the military-security system, in which there are comparatively few. A gatekeeping measure would require the executive to go before a court before switching somebody out of the criminal-justice system and into the military-security system. A third thing that could be done would be to add procedural protections in places where we haven’t previously had a need for them, such as in the security or military side of affairs.

Will civil liberties be an important issue in the presidential campaign?

It’s possible. There are currently [as of early May] three cases before the Supreme Court concerning the exercise of government power in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Some-times Supreme Court decisions work to galvanize public opinion. There certainly will be a lot of coverage of those decisions in the press. Also, voting groups that are strongly affected by those decisions may play a critical role in swing states. Michigan, for example, has a large Arab-American population. That may be very important as the presidential election approaches.

You were a physics major as an undergraduate yet ended up as a constitutional scholar. When did you decide to change fields?

I knew by the time I was a senior that I was headed in the direction of law or political science rather than physics. It took me about that long to learn that I wasn’t smart enough to be a physicist and that I needed to do something else. One of the reasons I came to Princeton was that I knew I had multiple interests and didn’t know which way I eventually wanted to go, so I wanted a place with a strong science program that would also give me the flexibility to take a demanding curriculum elsewhere.

Will you have to give up teaching when you take over as provost?

That’s my biggest regret about taking the job. I find teaching energizing. I love to be in the classroom with Princeton students. On the other hand, when you do teach and you do it right, it takes a lot of time. So for the first two years, at least, it’s something I’m going to have to give up. Then, maybe if I’m good enough at the job I can step back into the classroom.


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