NYU Denies Any Wrongdoing

August 25, 2006

Over the past few months FIRE has been petitioning NYU to acknowledge that it was wrong to place a stranglehold on free speech during the Objectivist Club’s event on the Mohammed cartoons last April.

You will remember that the Objectivist Club, supported by the Ayn Rand Institute, planned an event to show and discuss the cartoons. The event was open to all NYU students and 75 non-NYU guests were specifically invited, while even more had registered to attend—which was well within the rules governing campus events. But at the last minute, NYU officials gave the Objectivists an ultimatum—if they showed the cartoons, they would have to disinvite outside guests. The Objectivists chose the former; the event went on with no cartoons being shown.

In response to FIRE’s latest entreaty to NYU’s Board of Trustees, NYU President John Sexton just sent us a letter denying any wrongdoing on the part of NYU. First, Sexton assured FIRE that NYU never said that the cartoons could not be shown at the event, and even said that “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. This decision was made wholly and exclusively by the student sponsors.” (Emphasis added.)

This statement ignores the fact that the Objectivists were forced into that decision because NYU had delivered them an ultimatum. Before the event took place, the Objectivist Club received an e-mail from NYU’s director of student activities stating that because of the

campus climate and controversy surrounding the cartoons we are going to require that this event be open only to members of the NYU community … so you’ll need to contact [the outside guests] and let them know that the event is no longer open to non-NYU guests so they should not plan on attending. … This is not negotiable. [Emphasis added.]

The following day, they got another e-mail saying that NYU would strike a bargain:

I have confirmed that the 75 guests on the guest list will be allowed to enter if the cartoons aren’t being displayed. If they are displayed then the security assessment will dictate that we don’t open the event to the 75 guests.

These 75 invited guests and another 75 who had registered to attend were no small matter to the Objectivists, who wanted interested, confirmed people to attend. Otherwise, they feared that they would have no audience, since student protestors had threatened to obtain all of the available tickets to prevent anyone from attending. During the event, one panelist even questioned the audience about how many of them would have been kept out if the cartoons had been shown. According to FIRE President Greg Lukianoff, who was one of the panelists, “practically everyone, except the protestors in the back, raised their hands.” The event went on with blank easels signifying the absence of the cartoons. Not quite the amicable agreement between university and student club that Sexton implies.

Sexton’s assertion that the Objectivists’ decision to not show the cartoons was wholly and exclusively their own is just flat out not true. A decision made in response to an ultimatum is not a decision made freely.

Sexton also implied that NYU delivered the ultimatum out of fear that outside parties would cause violence at the event. Similar events occurred at four other major universities across the country, however, and nothing but peaceful discussion ensued. In reality, NYU took the side of those disagreeing with the cartoons’ display from the outset. NYU spokesman John Beckman even compared the cartoons to a deadly disease by telling a student newspaper that “one can have a discussion on smallpox without actually handing out the live virus to the audience.”

Sexton’s letter to FIRE paints the picture that FIRE has “provided a tendentious and incorrect narrative in describing this NYU event.” It is Sexton, however, who has tried to spin things so that it appears that NYU committed no abuse of free expression. The facts prove otherwise, however, and until NYU recognizes its misdeeds, similar episodes are bound to take place in the future.

Schools:  New York University