NYU Knuckles

April 2, 2006

For all the charges by the left that the First Amendment is under siege in America, the far bigger threat to free expression today is what’s rightly been labeled “the heckler’s veto.”

Meaning the thuggish tack of squelching speech with a violent threat – and a demonstration of the will to carry it out.

The world saw the heckler’s veto at work in the worldwide protests over those Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad: People died because rampaging rent-a-mobs declared the drawings “offensive.” Around the world, governments and many publications blinked before the threats.

Though the chanting and the protests have ended, the memories remain – and continue to terrify those who should know better.

Case in point: Borders and Waldenbooks, two of the nation’s largest book-sellers (they share a common ownership), are refusing to stock the April-May issue of Free Inquiry, a magazine published by the Council for Secular Humanism, because it carries the cartoons.

The company fatuously insists that its commitment to the First Amendment is absolute. But, says a spokesman, “We’ve just chosen not to carry this particular issue in our stores.”

Pressed further, the spokesman conceded that a concern that carrying the magazine could endanger the “safety and security of our customers and employees.”

That’s a legitimate worry, of course – but the answer is to increase security, not to knuckle under to threats of violence.

Which is precisely what New York University did last week. Knuckle under, that is.

NYU’s Objectivist Club (a group promoting the ideas of the writer Ayn Rand) had scheduled a panel discussion about the cartoons. A similar event earlier in the month at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore went! off pretty much without a hitch. Not so at NYU.

The day before the event, following threats to stage protests, NYU told the sponsors they were barred from displaying the controversial cartoons because the university’s Muslim students found “the display of the cartoons deeply offensive” – even though those drawings were the subject of the entire discussion.

Eventually, NYU “relented” – saying that the cartoons could be displayed, if no one from outside the university was allowed to attend. This, even though NYU campus-club events have always been public.

Score one for cowardice.

In the end, the cartoons were not displayed; instead, the sponsors simply showed four blank easels. Outsiders were allowed in – but only half of those who held tickets were admitted.

This from a university that claims a commitment to “maintaining an environment where open, vigorous debate and speech can occur.”

As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education noted, NYU’s decision! is “both chilling and absurd. The fact that expression might provoke a strong reaction is a reason to protect it – not an excuse to punish it.”

True, some Muslims find any physical depiction of their prophet offensive. But nothing in the Bill of Rights protects people from being offended.

Such a proscription would be utterly antithetical to the notion of free speech – the linchpin of America’s system of government.

It’s a lesson NYU – and Borders – need to learn.

And not just those institutions.

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Schools: New York University Cases: New York University: Suppression of Discussion of Mohammed Cartoons