As a student journalist at Princeton University, Elena Kagan demonstrated abelief that First Amendment freedoms were a non-negotiable component of auniversity with a rigorous intellectual atmosphere.
“A university, more than any other type of institution, ought topromote and encourage the free exchange of ideas, whether intellectual,religious or political,” a 1980 unsigned Daily Princetonian editorial read.
As editorial chairman for the Daily Princetonian, Kagan wasresponsible for the opinion page in the paper — including the unsignededitorials. During this time, the editorial board strongly opposed theuniversity’s stance in a FirstAmendment case involving outside political groups and campus discussion.
The editorial calls Princeton’s claim that it could constitutionallyrestrict the activities of outside political speakers a “blatant conflictwith the ideal of free inquiry which should be central to Princeton’sbeing.”
“Centers of higher learning should, after all, be distinguished by aspirit of inquiry and investigation, and this spirit can only thrive in anatmosphere of unfettered debate of dissenting opinions,” the editorialread. “The possibility of occasional annoyance from external politicalgroups should not frighten us. Vigorous debate and discussion, whetherinstigated by university members or outsiders, is far more important to auniversity’s essential well-being.”
Kagan also published editorials on issues that affected the university suchas affirmative action and lack of tenured women faculty, becoming something of achampion for justice for the less powerful members of the community, said BartGellman, a Princetonian senior reporter in 1981.
“She didn’t waffle on her opinions,” Gellman, currently acontributing editor at TIME Magazine, said. “She wasn’t, at thattime, the cautious, careful, measured person that all the stories now say shebecame. She had very clear points of view.”
Kagan, who was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court in May, grew up on theUpper West Side of New York in an apartment where the bookshelves stretched fromfloor to ceiling and dinner table discussions were never without lively debate.
Marc Fisher, a family friend of Kagan’s at the time, said she wasraised to value thoughtful discussion and the pursuit of academia — both ofwhich stuck with Kagan as a college journalist. Fisher believes both of thesequalities will benefit her as a potential Supreme Court justice.
“She came from a very accomplished, highly intellectual family; afamily that cared about ideas and argued together and studied together,”said Fisher, who is currently a reporter at the Washington Post.”The whole ethic of argument and analysis was deeply set in her from thestart. The family found joy in batting around ideas, and clearly that’ssomething that you want in a Supreme Court justice.”
During the year Kagan presided over editorial content, she establishedherself as a confident, strong presence in the newsroom with a knack for puttingwords together quickly and elegantly.
“I do remember her editorials had an unusually mature style,”Fisher said. “They were not in any way the kinds of rants that you see ata lot of campus papers these days. They were very measured and very much themodel of the old New York Times editorial page, which she grew upreading.”
Gellman said he remembers Kagan’s ironic sense of humor in thenewsroom as a bonus to the other qualities that made her an effective editorialchairman.
“She was skeptical and stuck to her beliefs firmly,” he said.”She was very good at holding people and institutions to account for whattheir jobs were; for what they said they were doing as opposed to what they werereally doing.”
Kagan’s intellectual capacity has been touted as one of her strongestqualifications for the Supreme Court justice nomination. Joel Achenbach, astudent reporter at the ‘Prince‘ during Kagan’s tenure,said Kagan’s intelligence was further illuminated by her strong work ethicboth in classes and at the paper.
“She was super smart back then, and she was also a goodjournalist,” said Achenbach, who is currently a Washington Post
staff writer. “What I think is most remarkable is that she could combinethe heavy workload at the student newspaper with some really outstandingacademic work. That says something about the quality of her mind and her energylevel.”
Achenbach, who succeeded Kagan as the editorial chairman in ’82, saidthat Kagan’s intellect never made her seem arrogant orunapproachable.
“She always struck me as very much of a normal, unpretentious person,and I’m sure she’s the same way now,” he said. “Iwouldn’t have guessed then that she would wind up as a Supreme Courtjustice, but it was clear that she would wind up as someone doing great work insome capacity.”
Despite her opinions in college, which Achenbach described as”liberal, but in a fairly conventional way,” Kagan seems to havemastered the ability to bring together diverse groups of people in her adultcareer, specifically during her time as dean at Harvard Law School.
At Harvard Law, Kagan was able to win support across the ideologicalspectrum, as well as the confidence of people at both ends of thescale — something Gellman said she might not have done during her collegeyears.
“I think that shows a lot of positive growth,” he said.”I’m not sure if the Elena I knew in college would have done that.She was a person who chose sides back then.”
Gellman said Kagan’s responsibilities as a student journalistcultivated skills that could carry over into her position as a justice.
“Part of your job as a justice is persuading a small group of peopleof your point of view,” he said. “On her editorial board at the’Prince’, she had to convince a comparable number of people of heropinion. I wouldn’t doubt that some of the skill she learned translateeven now, into this [future] job.”
And although Kagan took her responsibilities as a student journalistseriously, she never had the intentions of making a career out of it.
Fisher recalls Kagan’s response during her senior year at Princetonwhen asked if she was going to pursue journalism after college as direct, but ina genuine and unaffected manner.
“She said ‘oh no, I don’t want to be one of the peoplewho writes about people who are changing the world, I want to be one of thefolks who is changing the world,’ ” Fisher said. “She was sounaffected in the way she said it, and that really kind of gets at the very openand accepting personality that she has.”