by Nat Hentoff
While the most embattled cartoons in the history of that genre have receded from the front pages, the fallout lives on. Just last week, the animated and often-controversial South Park television show took on the issue and was rebuffed when its creators tried to depict the prophet in a scene.
Instead, a black screen appeared with the words, “Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammed on their network.”
It’s more of the same in academia. New York University, for example, states that it is “committed to maintaining an environment where open, vigorous debate and speech can occur.” But late last month, the Objectivist Club, a student group that supports the philosophy of Ayn Rand, discovered that the NYU policy is more situational than firm.
The club wanted to have a panel discussion, “Free Speech and the Danish Cartoons,” but after protests from Muslim groups, the NYU administration insisted that the controversy could be discussed without showing the cartoons. When the club disagreed, NYU then imposed such limiting conditions on the club — including who could attend the discussion — that the club finally “chose” not to show them. (“Chose” is the administration’s interpretation of the decision.)
The story eventually made its way into the Star-Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul) newspaper, at which point FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) intervened. FIRE, which defends academic freedom for professors and students, wrote to Century College President Larry Litecky that “the college’s responsibility to free speech and open inquiry far outweighs any responsibility the college has to avoid offense.”
The administration’s tone changed. It said Murdock was simply asked to remove the cartoons to make space for another posting. Litecky asserted that the “college administration at Century has neither censored anyone’s free speech nor removed any of the posted cartoons.”
A fifth time
Century College’s administration — and indeed, all who wither amid such free speech controversies — should welcome a challenge from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.”
Nat Hentoff is an expert on First Amendment issues, student rights and education. He is on the advisory board of FIRE.
- ‘Free speech’ cries ring hollow on college campuses and beyond, PDF, 75.4 KB , USA Today