Last week, The New York Times reported that Yale University Press had made the decision not to reprint the famous 2005 Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in Brandeis Professor Jytte Klausen’s upcoming book The Cartoons that Shook the World. This decision caused an uproar both within and outside of academia. (I posted my own take on the situation for Pajamas Media here.)
In response to the initial outcry, Yale University’s Office of Public Affairs posted a comment on the blog of the National Coalition Against Censorship responding to the controversy. (It should be noted that I was unable to find this statement on Yale’s own website, so there is a chance that this statement is not authentic.) The statement does not add much new information, but it emphasizes that “[t]he decision rested solely on the experts’ assessments that there existed a substantial likelihood of violence that might take the lives of innocent victims” if the cartoons were republished.
I do not cavalierly dismiss Yale Press’ concerns about the potential for violence. Considering what happened another time the cartoons were published, I am sympathetic to the fact that some had reservations about what the human toll might be from republishing the cartoons in a book from a major university press.
However, this is one of those situations in which those who profess to care about liberty can’t always make the “safest” decision. From a moral standpoint, Yale University Press would deserve absolutely no guilt or blame if its republication of the cartoons in the book led to violence abroad. If we are to maintain a free society, we must remember that violence based on expression is solely the responsibility of those who foment or commit violent acts in response to that expression. That is why in the United States, speech must be virtually tantamount to action (for instance, true incitement, threat, or maybe “fighting words”) before it can be punishable as speech alone. The fact that someone is angry, even murderously angry, about what I have to say is no excuse for him to kill me or anyone else.
If we cannot live under that premise, we cannot live in a free society. (FIRE’s original statement on the cartoons, issued in February 2006, explores this fundamental truth at greater length.)
It is therefore sad, and a little disturbing, that Yale University, Yale University Press, and the two dozen experts they say were consulted evidently did not raise this philosophical objection to excluding the cartoons for fear of violence. But maybe this is not so surprising. In recent years, Yale has endured at least two situations in which powerful forces at the university have pushed to censor or punish those engaging in expression on the basis of other people’s reaction to that expression.
For example, last year, a group of Yale fraternity brothers found themselves the subject of a threatened lawsuit by the Yale Women’s Center after they were pictured holding up a sign reading “We Love Yale Sluts” in front of the center and, at some point, chanting the word “dick.” The sign and chant were undoubtedly distasteful, but that’s about it. Nevertheless, the Women’s Center branded these antics “premeditated hate speech” and “psychological violence,” a student filed a complaint, and the Women’s Center threatened to sue. Yale charged the students with “intimidation” and “harassment.” Although Yale ultimately cleared them of the charges some months later, the message was clear—expression like this was tantamount to violence, justifying an investigation and possible punishment. This established a precedent that one’s freedom of expression depends in part on the reaction of those listening.
Yale also bent artistic expression to the presumed reaction of audiences when, in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, Yale banned the use of realistic-looking weapons in stage productions. Bizarrely, its first use of this new doctrine applied to swords and other medieval weapon props used in a play set in the Middle Ages. Only “obviously fake” weapons were allowed, presumably because a sword-fighting scene with wooden swords would be less traumatic to the audience than a sword-fighting scene with metal prop swords. Widely ridiculed, Yale backed off the ban, but now requires that audiences be notified in advance if any fake guns, swords, or knives are used in a play—a sort of Mr. Yuk for those averse to violence in dramatic productions.
Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that Yale and Yale University Press seem culturally amenable to putting a permanent “Mr. Yuk” on the Danish Mohammed cartoons that justifies refusing to reprint them because of their supposedly poisonous nature. Yale and its experts evidently believe that even four years later, the cartoons are simply too dangerous to reprint, even though, as they acknowledge, the images have been freely available on the Internet since then—and without disturbance to the many who have republished them. One wonders when Yale University Press will be ready to see the cartoons pass from being objects of rage to being historical material suitable for publication. If four years is not enough, how about eight? Ten? Twenty? Is there an expiration date after which those who would commit violence on hearing about a cartoon are on their own? Yale doesn’t say, but it would be wise to decide, now that it has set the precedent that some expression simply cannot be repeated if it makes the wrong people angry.
UPDATE: Some time today, Yale University Press posted the statement above on its own website at http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/KlausenStatement.asp. The statement has very minor and non-substantive changes from the one posted on the National Coalition Against Censorship website.