NYU’s Deceitful Spin

By April 3, 2006

As FIRE reported last week, New York University (NYU) succeeded in censoring a display of the Mohammed cartoons from the NYU Objectivist Club’s panel discussion of those very cartoons. The panel’s organizers were told in e-mails on March 27 and 28 that they would either have to agree to not show the Danish cartoons or exclude the over 150 off-campus guests who had registered to attend the event. Faced with this ultimatum, the Objectivists chose to open the event to people not affiliated with NYU. The university managed to further frustrate the success of the event when it allowed only 75 of the 150 registered guests to attend the previously “open” meeting and denied entrance to some members of the media.
 
In the days since the panel discussion, a hailstorm of criticism has befallen NYU, as an editorial in yesterday’s New York Post shows. NYU has nonetheless reprehensibly and repeatedly defended its foray into censorship. NYU spokesperson John Beckman told Inside Higher Ed that the university’s objection to the cartoons was based on the fact that “an important group in our Muslim community made it clear that they found the display of the cartoons deeply offensive,” and told the New York Sun that “it wasn’t necessary to show the cartoons to discuss them.” Almost as if parodying himself, Beckman went on to tell NYU’s student paper that, “Realistically, one can have a discussion on smallpox without actually handing out the live virus to the audience.” But even Beckman must realize that, as most biology textbooks will prove, a picture of a virus is often helpful in understanding it.
 
On Friday, NYU’s party line on the cartoon censorship went from sorely misdirected to blatantly disingenuous. In an e-mail that has been blogged about by Brooklyn College Professor K. C. Johnson and posted on Dartblog, NYU spokesman John Beckman summarized NYU’s position when he said:
Frankly, it is not clear why a discussion of free speech and the Danish cartoons could not have taken place without the display of the cartoons. Given the sensitivities of one segment of our community, that would have been the preferable course. However, the students of the Objectivist Club felt otherwise.
 
Any reasonable person knows that the display of these cartoons has been accompanied by violence throughout the world. Every institution has a responsibility to ensure that an event held on its grounds goes off smoothly, safely, and without disruption.
It might surprise Beckman to learn that many displays of the cartoons have not been accompanied by violence. Here in the U.S., several college newspapers have reprinted the cartoons, they are readily available on any number of websites, professors have shown them in classes and posted them on bulletin boards (though at Century College in Minnesota, censorship won out before long), and a few courageous mainstream newspapers have even run the cartoons. Peaceful and reasoned discussion of the cartoons, contrary to Beckman’s position, is indeed possible. And shouldn’t that be the university’s goal?
 
Beckman’s e-mail went on:
This decision was a balance between the serious concerns of one segment of our community, on the one hand, and NYU’s tradition of free speech and free exchange of ideas on the other. The University decided…that the traditions of free speech must prevail. The University told both the Objectivist Club and its Muslim community that the display WOULD be allowed at the event.
 
The inclusion of the cartoons in the event caused the University decide to limit the audience to members of the NYU community, a rather large group (NYU is America’s largest private university) including some 40,000 students and some 15,000 faculty, administrators, and staff.
 
On Wednesday afternoon, a few hours before the event, the student leadership of the club came to the University and indicated it had changed its mind: it would choose not to display the cartoons, and would like to be able to invite about 75 people to the event who were not members of the NYU community. The University agreed, but let’s be clear: the students made this choice, and they made it after the University had indicated to one and all that the event could go forward WITH the cartoons displayed.
We see here the finest spin-doctoring that today’s tuition dollars can buy. Beckman failed to acknowledge that the Objectivists had from the very beginning informed administrators that the event would be open to the public. NYU’s own policies even say that the decision to open events to the public is that of the organizing student group, not the university. It was only after some students objected to the cartoons’ display that NYU made a 180-degree turn and introduced the ultimatum.
 
Beckman also failed to recognize that a decision made in response to an ultimatum is not a decision made freely. NYU painted the Objectivists into a corner by making them choose between limiting the audience for their event and censoring the content of the event. Faced with this decision—just one day before the event was scheduled to take place—the Objectivists chose what they saw as the lesser of two evils.
 
Does Beckman, or anyone else at NYU, really stand by the position this was a decision made in freedom? Is this distinct brand of free speech espoused by Beckman really the most that NYU students can hope for?