In ‘Pajamas Media,’ FIRE’s VP Slams Yale Press Censorship of Mohammed Cartoons

By on August 14, 2009

There appears to be a new exemplar of the cowardice and censorship that characterized the academy’s response to the furor over the publication of twelve cartoons by a Danish newspaper depicting the Prophet Mohammed. As The New York Times was first to report on Tuesday, Yale University Press decided not to print the once-incendiary cartoons in Brandeis Professor Jytte Klausen’s upcoming book The Cartoons That Shook the World, a scholarly exploration ofno rewards for guessingthe controversy stemming from the publication of the cartoons.

Yale’s press has been roundly slammed for its temerity, and rightly so. Foxnews.com was quick to pick up on the incident, and FIRE Advisor Wendy Kaminer slammed Yale Press on her blog at The Atlantic. Cary Nelson, President of the American Association of University Professors, also issued a strong condemnation of the press. The international publication Daily India has gotten wind of the controversy. Even the gossip site Gawker.com has been having its fun.

Today, in an article for Pajamas Media, FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley excoriates the press’ decision and takes dead aim at the publisher’s feeble justifications for the decision:

According to the Times, "The cartoons are freely available on the Internet and can be accurately described in words, [Yale University Press Director John] Donatich said, so reprinting them could be interpreted easily as gratuitous."

How wrongheaded! As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff pointed out back in 2006, "verbal depictions of editorial cartoons usually end up interpreting cartoons, but part of the art of editorial cartooning is that the cartoon may be interpreted in any of a range of ways." Written descriptions of the cartoons are virtually certain to include the interpretations of those reading the cartoonsbut like any examples of art, they can have different meanings for different people. 

Further, merely from a historical perspective, the "hey, look it up on the Internet" defense is massively shortsighted. The possibility that the book may be picked up 30 years from now when the controversy is but a distant memory and the images might not be so easily available on the Internet (or some successor computer network) either did not occur to Donatich or was not considered persuasive.

Robert is also skeptical of the press’ assertion that it censored the cartoons on the unanimous recommendation of 24 experts in various fields. As he says:

It is interesting that the Times says that Yale consulted "diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism" as opposed to "scholars in the field." While diplomats and counterterrorism experts (understandably) wish to avoid any possible inflammation of opinion in the Islamic world, this is hardly the right basis on which an academic press should make its decision. Even odder is the fact that the decision was reportedly "unanimous," meaning that out of the 24 people asked to give an opinion, not one of them thought that printing the Mohammed cartoons in a book about the Mohammed cartoons was a good idea.

To bolster his suspicion, Robert points back to the Times, which reports how Klausen was forced to review the recommendations of the group in private, and not to discuss them or even to disclose the identities of those making the recommendations. Klausen stated in the Times article that she thought such directives amounted to a "gag order."

Indeed, if Roger Kimball has it right, Yale University itself intervened:

The proximate question is: who got the censorship ball rolling? The fact that the Secretary of the University got involved suggests that the administration itself, i.e., the office of President Richard C. Levin, was party to the decision.

This case provides the latest sad chapter in the history of censorship of the cartoons, as Robert points out by detailing the many FIRE cases that have revolved around the cartoons:

At Century College in Minnesota, Professor Karen Murdock was repeatedly censored in her efforts to post the cartoons on a bulletin board, eventually resorting to the absurdity of putting a curtain and warning sign over the cartoons. University of Illinois student Acton Gorton, editor of The Daily Illini student newspaper, was fired for printing the cartoons in that student newspaper alongside a column he wrote about the controversy. (We are proud to say that Acton later became a FIRE intern.) Students at the University of Chicago and at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute also faced censorship

And in the worst example of all (and the one most directly analogous to the present controversy), New York University hosted a panel discussion about the cartoons but decided that since the event was open to the public, the cartoons could not actually be shown. Instead, blank easels stood on the stage. FIRE President Greg Lukianoff was part of that panel, and as you can imagine, he had some choice words about NYU’s decision, saying, "Those blank easels were a testament to campus repression and a climate of fear." NYU even forced a student who was wearing a t-shirt depicting the cartoons to remove it. The fact that NYU President John Sexton, a self-styled free speech advocate, supported his institution’s decision is particularly disturbing. (Maybe Sexton is one of the anonymous two dozen people who told Yale University Press that publishing a book about cartoons without printing those cartoons made all the sense in the world!)

FIRE has seen this ham-fisted enforcement of the "no context is a good context" rule plenty of times before. Klausen, as it turns out, is a professor of politics at Brandeis, a member of the same department as Donald Hindley (listed right beneath him on the department’s faculty page, no less). Hindley was found guilty of racial harassment and forced to suffer the indignity of having a monitor placed in his classroom after critiquing the term "wetbacks" in a class on Latin American Politics. Wretched luck for that department lately! And who could forget the case of Keith John Sampson at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), who was similarly charged for reading a book celebrating the defeat of the Ku Klux Klan by a group of Notre Dame students?

This incident certainly puts Yale University Press in league with Brandeis and IUPUI and adds another disheartening example of the academy’s usually feckless response to the teaching moments at the heart of the cartoon controversy. Read Robert’s full article for more.

Schools: Yale University Cases: Yale University: Censorship of Mohammed Cartoons at Yale University Press