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NYU President John Sexton: Free Speech Hypocrite

Inside Higher Ed carried a short blurb on Friday stating that NYU President John Sexton had been interviewed on the Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report.” FIRE had its own run-in with Sexton earlier this year, when NYU became the best-known college to censor a discussion of the Mohammed cartoons that roiled the world last spring. On the show, a clip of which can be found here, Sexton talks about how knowledge depends on “really allowing people to address the problems of the day, the real problems of the day, creatively, not with slogans,” and opines that we are not having a rich debate in our society. Sexton sounds great, like a man who really believes in the societal benefits of open and honest debate.

Too bad it’s a crock.

For a time this year, John Sexton could fairly have been called America’s most prominent censor. When NYU’s Objectivist Club decided to hold a panel discussion about the Mohammed cartoons last spring, NYU gave it two choices: (1) display the cartoons at the discussion and allow only NYU community members to attend, in the process disinviting the 150 or so New Yorkers from outside the university who had signed up to attend, or (2) not display the cartoons and let everyone attend (as was the usual practice for NYU’s Objectivist Club). When considering this choice, it is important to know that administrators at NYU knew that some student groups were purposely requesting and then destroying the free tickets to the event so that students actually interested in attending would be unable to go, so that if the Objectivists decided to show the cartoons, the discussion would have very few attendees. (I mention only in passing the implied insult to New York City’s residents, who managed to handle a terrorist attack that left 2,700 dead but whom Sexton presumed could not handle looking at a cartoon.)

FIRE’s president, Greg Lukianoff, was one of the panelists at the event, which ended up going on without showing the cartoons after the Objectivists decided that a censored discussion with some attendees would be better than panelists addressing an empty room. FIRE then wrote President Sexton, protesting the censorship and reminding him that not only had he publicly opposed censorship in the past, but that according to NYU’s own policies, “New York University is committed to maintaining an environment where open, vigorous debate and speech can occur.” FIRE’s letter was sent in April; Sexton did not reply until August, after FIRE had written to NYU’s Board of Trustees. Surely he acknowledged that the situation could have been handled better, right? Wrong.

Instead of admitting that NYU had practiced censorship and committing not to do it again, Sexton launched an inspired (in the sense of vigorous, if not enlightening or exalting) defense of NYU’s censorship. In fact, Sexton denied that any censorship took place at all, sarcastically pointing out that if the Objectivists had chosen to show the cartoons, they would have been limited “to an audience from among the mere 50-60,000 members of the university community.” That sounds impressive until you realize that 60,000 people is only 0.85% of New York City’s population, and that most of the student tickets had been torn up anyway.

Sexton’s letter is generally a hilarious exercise in doublespeak. He first says, “[A]t no time did the University say that the event could not go forward with the display of the cartoons.” Later, he says, “Late on the day of the event—indeed, just an hour or two before the event was to start—the Objectivist Club indicated that it would prefer not to display the cartoons in order to be allowed to invite non-University guests to be part of the audience.” According to this logic, if NYU had allowed the cartoons to be shown to an audience limited to one person but forbade them from being shown to two or more people, that wouldn’t be censorship. This is the worst kind of sophistry—an attempt to deceive through a seemingly plausible but actually fallacious argument.

Why is this important to point out? Because NYU students and professors need to know that when it comes to free speech, Sexton does not remotely live up to his own rhetoric. FIRE sees this all the time—indeed, fellow New Yorker and Columbia University President Lee Bollinger has built up what is a probably insurmountable lead in the contest to be America’s top free speech hypocrite—but it’s no less infuriating or immoral just because it’s commonplace.

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