Per media reports that surfaced last weekend, New York University professor Michael Rectenwald invited conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to address his writing class today to discuss the “politics of Halloween.” In response, NYU issued a statement saying that while “Mr. Yiannopoulos has espoused many ideas that are at odds with the values of the NYU community and are offensive to its members,” he would be allowed to speak to the professor’s class “because even in the face of controversy and profound disagreement, adherence to the principles of academic freedom is a core value.”
Last night, however, NYU issued a statement announcing that the institution had agreed to postpone Yiannopoulos’ discussion following a request from New York City’s mayor.
The Associated Press reports:
A scheduled Halloween night speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at New York University was postponed by school officials due to public safety concerns.
“New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio today requested that NYU postpone and reschedule the classroom appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos for public safety reasons in light of the nearby Halloween parades and New York Police Department assessments of risk,” NYU spokesman John Beckman said in a statement Tuesday.
“Given the importance of close coordination between NYU’s Public Safety personnel and the NYPD to ensuring safety, the University agreed to the postponement,” Beckman said.
Earlier in the day, NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan said he was sending a “very large detail” of officers to Yiannopoulos’ event at NYU to prevent a repeat of a brawl that erupted after another provocative figure, Proud Boys founder Gavin McGinnis, spoke Oct. 12 at a Republican club event in Manhattan.
“The NYPD can and would handle anything. But needlessly having this immediately adjacent to one of the biggest NYC events all year doesn’t make a lot of sense,” de Blasio spokesman Eric Phillips said in a tweet. “NYU is smart to reschedule it for a different day.”
NYU’s statement announcing the postponement also asserts that the university’s administration “first learned of Professor Rectenwald’s invitation to Mr. Yiannopoulos from news reports on Sunday,” and that NYU security officials “began working on safety planning with police officials Monday.”
As FIRE has said before, institutional claims about security needs must be met with skepticism in the absence of transparency:
Maintaining campus safety is critical — without basic security, no speech is safe. Yet the deference often shown to authorities when they claim a need to act in defense of safety can easily be abused. When acts by these authorities disproportionately burden a controversial speaker, the authorities’ claims should be rigorously scrutinized to prevent censorship from being disguised as security. Officials must be transparent, and when they are not, their claims should not long be afforded deference.
This situation is little different. City officials indicated the NYPD “can and would handle anything,” meriting skepticism that the mayor’s request is motivated by necessity and not preference. It is difficult to believe that the combined efforts of NYU’s Public Safety Department and the NYPD would be unable to maintain a safe classroom, campus, and public environment for a classroom speaker, even a controversial one.
Further, the city government has a non-negotiable responsibility to ensure that the threat of violence against a speaker does not result in the silencing of that speaker, as FIRE has discussed in other contexts. In asking NYU, a private institution, to postpone Yiannopoulos’ address to the class because of unspecified safety concerns, the city invites criticism for placing convenience above its duty to maintain order. In agreeing to the mayor’s request, NYU has sacrificed the same “principles of academic freedom” that it defended in its initial statement.
PEN America likewise calls for security officials to substantiate any safety need necessitating the postponement:
Without substantiation of a genuine threat to safety, the city’s intervention fits into a troubling pattern of government officials calling upon private parties, including the NFL and news organizations, to police and punish speech.
— PEN America (@PENamerican) October 31, 2018
We agree. Given the absence of public information about specific safety threats, Yiannopoulos’ visit to the classroom today should go forward as scheduled, and NYU and the NYPD should ensure that it does so safely and without incident. This would afford Rectenwald the ability to conduct his class as envisioned while providing those who would protest Yiannopoulos’ appearance with ample opportunity to exercise their expressive rights. The defense of academic freedom is worth the cost.