Censors Win at NYU

March 30, 2006

As FIRE announced yesterday, administrators at New York University (NYU) were attempting to squelch a panel discussion on the Danish cartoons of Mohammed. Leaders of the NYU Objectivist Club, which organized the panel, were told to choose one of two unacceptable options. They could either exclude the over 150 off-campus guests who had registered to attend the event or agree not to show the Danish cartoons. E-mails from NYU administrator Robert Butler on March 27 and 28 substantiating this ultimatum are available on FIRE’s website.

Today, FIRE has the unfortunate duty of reporting that NYU succeeded in muzzling the Objectivist Club. While the event was held, with what students called their largest crowd ever, NYU did not allow the cartoons to be shown—nor were all of the off-campus guests even allowed in. Instead, as NYU’s student newspaper has reported, the students were forced to display easels with blank panels. FIRE President Greg Lukianoff, who was part of the panel, aptly noted this morning, “Those blank easels were a testament to campus repression and a climate of fear.” Not even a T-shirt bearing one of the images was allowed in the room.

To make matters even worse, the students were allowed to admit only 75 of the approximately 150 off-campus guests who had registered. Stephan Walker, the vice president of the Objectivist Club, confirmed to FIRE that even several members of the media had to be turned away. Later, Lukianoff and a blogger both observed a student being forced to remove a shirt depicting one of the cartoons. Finally, following through on plans divulged in an e-mail in FIRE’s possession, members of the Bengali Student Association apparently obtained and then ripped up many of the student tickets for the event. Walker has a bag of these torn-up tickets.

NYU’s shameful actions violate both the moral principle of freedom of speech and, as UCLA Professor of Law Eugene Volokh recently noted, its own policies. FIRE has archived the relevant policies, in which NYU shockingly claims to be “committed to maintaining an environment where open, vigorous debate and speech can occur.” But NYU’s actions last night show that its real commitment is to censorship. As an NYU spokesman told Inside Higher Ed, the university’s objection to the cartoons is 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.” The spokesman also told the New York Sun that “it wasn’t necessary to show the cartoons to discuss them.” And if that wasn’t enough lunacy for one day, the spokesman said the following to NYU’s student paper: “Realistically, one can have a discussion on smallpox without actually handing out the the live virus to the audience.”

Simply put, making decisions about what is too offensive to be shown to people is none of NYU’s business—and infecting people with smallpox is not the same as showing them a cartoon! If the university truly believes in freedom of speech and open inquiry, it must leave decisions on whether to show possibly offensive material to its students. Instead, NYU kept the Objectivist Club from showing the cartoons the discussion of which was the entire purpose of their event.

When the cartoon controversy first struck American campuses, FIRE noted in a statement that in most cases, university administrators responded in accordance with the principles of liberty by allowing students to decide for themselves whether to publish or display the images. (Century College, on the other hand, effectively banned Professor Karen Murdock from posting the cartoons on a public bulletin board.) NYU, unfortunately for its many students and alumni, has just made itself an exception to that trend. FIRE dearly hopes that members of the media and the public will not cease to expose and denounce NYU’s bizarre distaste for freedom. We are happy to answer any questions—and NYU President John Sexton deserves to answer some himself.

Schools:  New York University