Standing Up to Threats

December 1, 2009

Academics’ commitment to free expression shouldn’t be put on hold because of the threat of violence, according to a joint statement issued Monday by a coalition of academic and civil liberties groups.

"The failure to stand up for free expression emboldens those who would attack and undermine it," says the statement. "It is time for colleges and universities in particular to exercise moral and intellectual leadership. It is incumbent on those responsible for the education of the next generation of leaders to stand up for certain basic principles: that the free exchange of ideas is essential to liberal democracy; that each person is entitled to hold and express his or her own views without fear of bodily harm; and that the suppression of ideas is a form of repression used by authoritarian regimes around the world to control and dehumanize their citizens and squelch opposition."

The statement was organized by the American Association of University Professors and National Coalition Against Censorship. Other academic groups that have signed on are the American Federation of Teachers, the College Art Association, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Modern Language Association, the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Education Association.

The statement says that "a number of recent incidents suggest that our long-standing commitment to the free exchange of ideas is in peril of falling victim to a spreading fear of violence." In particular, Yale University Press is criticized for its decision to removed images of Mohammed from Jytte Klausen’s book, The Cartoons That Shook the World, which is about the controversy and violence sparked by a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons of Mohammed. In the case of the book, the university decided to remove the images from the book not due to a threat of violence, but because of the possibility of violence that might take place after publication.

"The incident at Yale provides an opportunity to re-examine our commitment to free expression. When an academic institution of such standing asserts the need to suppress scholarly work because of a theoretical possibility of violence ‘somewhere in the world,’ it grants legitimacy to censorship and casts serious doubt on their, and our, commitment to freedom of expression in general, and academic freedom in particular," says the statement.

Asked about the new statement, a Yale spokesman said that a university statement from August about the book controversy still reflected the university’s views. That statement quoted some of the experts Yale consulted and said that the press and the university were committed to academic freedom. "The press would never have reached the decision it did on the grounds that some might be offended by portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad. Indeed, Yale University Press has printed books in the past that included images of the Prophet. The decision rested solely on the experts’ assessments that there existed a substantial likelihood of violence that might take the lives of innocent victims," the university’s response said.

The AAUP statement cited other examples beyond the Yale University Press decision. Among them:

  • The decision by Hamilton College in 2005 to cancel a schedule appearance by Ward Churchill, then a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, whose statements about 9/11 were attracting widespread criticism, amid threats of violence. (The statement does not name Churchill, calling him "a politically controversial professor.")
  • The decision by the San Francisco Art Institute in 2008 to shut down an exhibit that included images of animals being bludgeoned, following threats by animal rights activists that they would attack faculty members.
  • The decision by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln to cancel a speech by William Ayers, the one-time Weather Underground leader and now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Nebraska cited security reasons for calling off the event, but many questioned whether the threats were credible and couldn’t have been handled.

Cary Nelson, national president of the AAUP, said in an interview that he recognized that some threats of violence may be real and that he wasn’t arguing that colleges should ignore such threats. But he said that in some cases, colleges have been too quick to take seriously "someone who makes a phone call." Even when law enforcement officials believe that a threat should be taken seriously, Nelson said, that doesn’t mean that the response should be to call off an event.

"You really think hard about what it would take to preserve that security and spending extra money to preserve it," Nelson said. If it is necessary to have the audience members walk through metal detectors to enter a building, he said, that is preferable to canceling an event. "Universities have a responsibility to guarantee that free speech functions on campus, and they have to be willing to put more resources into protecting speakers and audience members."

He added that the response should not be to bill the groups that sponsor speakers for these security costs, as passing along such expenses would make it impossible for many of them to invite speakers to campus.

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