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FIRE Asks NYU to Repudiate Its Censorship of the Mohammed Cartoons

Yesterday we sent a letter asking NYU to repudiate its actions censoring the public display of the Mohammed cartoons at an event at which I was a panelist on March 29th. The letter opens:

As you know, I participated in the NYU Objectivist Club’s March 29 panel discussion of the Danish cartoons of Mohammed. Two days prior to the event, your administration gave the Objectivist Club’s officers an ultimatum—if they wished to show the cartoons that were the subject of the event, they had to un-invite nearly 150 off-campus guests who had registered to attend. Meanwhile, your administration did nothing to prevent student activists angry at the decision to show the cartoons from taking and destroying student tickets to the event in a brazen and unapologetic attempt to prevent NYU students from attending. NYU has failed to abide by its own policies, which strongly protect even controversial speech, and, perhaps most tragically, you have failed to live up to your own public statements supporting academic freedom and freedom of speech.

The letter goes on to cover the facts of the incident in extensive detail, and to show how NYU’s actions violate both its own policies and NYU President John Sexton’s own public statements. Eugene Volokh over at the Volokh Conspiracy has done an excellent job of pointing out Sexton’s failure to live up to his own stated principles.

Perhaps most shameful of all, the university has attempted to obfuscate its culpability in this case. We write:

NYU spokesmen’s public statements denying that any censorship took place have been truly dishonest. NYU Provost David W. McLaughlin has been quoted as saying that “at no time did the University say that cartoons could not be shown.” This is inexcusably deceptive: as Robert Butler’s e-mail shows, the students were given the choice between allowing their chosen audience to attend the event or showing the cartoons. Given the fact the students and administration knew of the plans by the student activists to destroy the student tickets, this was not really a choice at all.

The letter also points out that the fear of violence over the cartoons is not only an illegitimate reason to censor, but appears to be unwarranted given the numerous other events or instances in the United States where the cartoons were shown. We note:

[T]wo other universities...have hosted events exactly like that which occurred at NYU last month: Johns Hopkins University and the University of Southern California. Both of those institutions permitted the cartoons to be shown, even if administrators personally disagreed with the decision to show them. No violence erupted, and many students, perhaps for the first time, were able to see the images over which people around the world have died.

The letter concludes:

If NYU wishes to portray itself as a marketplace of ideas, it must publicly repudiate its actions relating to the March 29 event, including Provost McLaughlin’s statement and Vice President John Beckman’s many public statements defending the censorship of the panel discussion.

In making the decision to prevent the Objectivist Club from publicly showing these cartoons, I do not know if you gave in to fear of violence, or a peculiar notion of “tolerance”—all too common in higher education these days—that equates broadmindedness with the silencing of truly dissenting viewpoints. Either way, you have done the concept of free and open expression at NYU a serious disservice. I ask you to consider how you would have reacted if evangelical Christians tried to shut down an event by an LGBT rights group because of a belief that the group’s views on Christianity were offensive, or if the same group of students tried to shut down a panel by the Islamic Center because they believed the teachings of Islam are blasphemous. We hope that under those circumstances you would have understood that the correct position—indeed, the only moral stance for a university that claims to value free and open expression—was to protect the expression of views and ideas from the forces of repression.

Instead, by failing to live up to your principles in this case, you have opened a Pandora’s box of censorship for future students who would like to control what others see, hear, read, or discuss. Unless you address NYU’s failure to defend the fundamental principles of a free university in this case, you will be haunted by the legacy of this incident for years to come. NYU’s students deserve better.

FIRE is categorically committed to using all of its resources in support of your students’ expressive rights and seeing this matter through to a just conclusion. I hope you will do what is right.

NYU must not be allowed to think that its decision to side with censors over open discussion and examination of extremely newsworthy images is acceptable. If you believe free speech should not be sacrificed in the face of intimidation or because of interpretations of tolerance which turn the concept on its head, write to President Sexton and let your thoughts be known. Hopefully, he will finally see fit to answer FIRE concerning this extremely serious circumvention of the basic principles upon which the academy relies.

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