NYU's Explanation of Its Actions:

As readers may recall, a student group at NYU wanted to put on an event that displayed and discussed the Mohammed cartoons. NYU insisted that the group either close the event to all non-NYU visitors, or not display the cartoons (the course that the group ultimately chose).

I called NYU to ask them for their take on the cartoon controversy, in particular with regard to their Guidelines Regarding Protest and Dissent, which say (emphasis added): "A. Commitment and Responsibilities of the University. New York University is committed to maintaining an environment where open, vigorous debate and speech can occur. This commitment entails encouraging and assisting University organizations that want to sponsor speakers as well as informing members of the University community who seek guidance concerning forms of protest against speakers. It may also involve paying for extraordinary security measures in connection with a controversial speaker. Consistent with these obligations, the University promulgates these Guidelines, which are intended to be applied without regard to the content of any proposed speaker's speech."

The policy also goes on to recognize that NYU groups are entitled to invite people from outside NYU, so long as "the sponsoring organization ... provide[s] that at least a majority of the seats be available to the University community or portion thereof, as the case may be."

NYU transferred me to James Devitt at the press office, who kindly discussed the matter with me. Here were his responses, with quotes noting his literal words (emphasis mine).

(1) "NYU has to be concerned with its students' safety and well-being, which are among the factors that drove our decision in this matter."

(2) The decision was also based partly on NYU's "larger obligation as a university to the sensibilities of its students," many of whom are offended by the cartoons.

(3) As to the policy, "No-one's speech was curtailed." "If you read the policy, it talks about speakers' speech being curtailed, and to the best of my knowledge none of the speakers were the cartoons' authors."

This strikes me as a troubling position. First, despite its ostensible commitment to public debate, even when this requires extra security protection, the NYU opted to curtail debate. Second, NYU acknowledges that it was partly motivated by concern about other students' "sensibilities" -- a very troubling reason for a university to restrict student expression, especially expression as important and newsworthy as this (these are, as FIRE has pointed out, likely the most newsworthy cartoons in history).

Third, NYU's assertion that the protections offered student speech are limited to speech that the students literally "author[ed]" is especially troubling. Under this logic, NYU's blocking distribution of the Quran or the Bible wouldn't "curtail" anyone's "speech," since of course the distributors are quite unlikely to be the Quran's or Bible's authors (or even authors of the particular translation). Likewise if NYU wanted to stop students from waving flags that they didn't personally design, from reading excerpts of important political works, or for that matter from distributing copies of the First Amendment. Such a reading would dramatically cut back on the speech protections that NYU has promised to its students. I hope that NYU faculty and others with influence at NYU are paying close attention to this controversy, and pressing the administration to mend its ways.

Ex-Fed (mail) (www):
If NYU is fielding questions in this manner -- let alone questions from blogger First Amendment scholars -- then its General Counsel needs to throw together a Powerpoint presentation or two for the staff. Criminey.

Any chance NY has anything like California's Leonard Law?
3.30.2006 4:02pm
Ray (mail):
Notice that most are giving Borders's a begrudging pass, while holding NYU's feet to the fire. Private biz is appropriately recognized as having only a responsibility to themselves and their immediate customers and employees. Whereas NYU is supposed to have certain ideals that would warrant the aforementioned increase in security.
3.30.2006 4:17pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail):
Not only does NYU have "certain ideals," as recent posts point out, they also have a stated policy which despite their GC's remarks, they are apparently contravening.

Does anyone know if NYU students can assert some sort of contract claim based on the violation of the speech policy? Is that thing binding, or is it just some lofty bull$#it that the school touts when the PR is right and the costs are low?
3.30.2006 4:21pm
Bob Loblaw (www):
That's what you get when you have someone in a press office trying to handle complicated questions.
3.30.2006 4:27pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
It seems to me that universities (unlike bookstores) have gotten broad subsidies -- both governmental and from private donors -- based in large part (though not entirely, I realize) on their assertions of being places for freewheeling, uncensored public debate on important issues.

When universities produce material that offends some people, and those people then question the propriety of those subsidies, universities often (and rightly) stress that universities should be free of speech-restricting strings, even ones that are attached to subsidies. Universities use "academic freedom" as an important defense of their actions, and an important justification for people to keep giving them various benefits.

It thus seems to me that universities should be more assiduously held to task for their departures from academic freedom. If Borders routinely asked for donations from the public, for special government loans to people who wanted to buy books, and so on, then I think it would be proper to hold them to a higher standard, too.
3.30.2006 4:27pm
Dutch (mail):
(3) As to the policy, "No-one's speech was curtailed." "If you read the policy, it talks about speakers' speech being curtailed, and to the best of my knowledge none of the speakers were the cartoons' authors."

This cannot possibly be the school's official position because it is just too stupid. For instance, are there any legal articles (whether actual court opinions or otherwise) EVER which do not quote freely from "the original authors"?
3.30.2006 4:35pm
Opus (mail):
Mr. Devitt, "what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."
3.30.2006 4:59pm
TomH (mail):
This fear of violent reprisal is simply the result of the attitude that "the terrorists have won." So much for the indomitable American Spirit. We've just been dominated.

The primary grounds for both Borders and NYU to refuse publication of the cartoons is the fear fo violence.

As a fatalist, and one who does not particularly like to be pushed around by others (particularly religious zealots who can not reason themselves out of a wet paper bag), I suggest Borders and NYU hold the event/distribute the magazine, and as a lawyer, if anything happens - sue the socks off the offenders.
3.30.2006 5:43pm
I wonder if the students would have been allowed to present their own representations of Muhammed, as "inspired" by the controversial cartoons at issue.
3.30.2006 5:45pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail):
ss, that would make sense wouldn't it? It seems that under NYU's policy you couldn't show a cartoon where Mohammad tells jihadists that he ran out of virgins, but it's perfectly acceptable to show a cartoon where Mohammad is mounted by a goat, of the Jewish persuasion, as long as it's orginal.
3.30.2006 5:48pm
Elliot123 (mail):
I am somewhat surprised at the few blogs that have linked or posted the cartoons. I applaud the VC for posting them, but I have seen few others having that same courage.

I suggest any media outlet, columnist, blogger, or web site that criticizes anyone for not publishing the cartoons simply cite when they themselves published them.

How about this: a few hundred major bloggers get together and have a cartoon day when they all publish the cartoons.
3.30.2006 5:52pm
go vols (mail):
"Safety" has always been the last refuge of a First Amendment scoundrel. What a craven response.
3.30.2006 6:37pm
Gene Vilensky (mail) (www):
What's hysterical, is that NYU's Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, which houses some borderline anti-Semitic faculty and many who are reflexively anti-America was recently the subject of a Congressional Committee hearing in which the government considered defunding it for spreading views harmful to America's national security (for example, one professor who had a grant to study Middle Eastern policy for improving America's national security, had written in an Arab paper about America deserving the terrorists' wrath). John Sexton, NYU's president called the proposed legislation a violation of First Amendment rights (which the SC has held, it is) and vigorously attacked it. I'm glad to see he's being consistent here.
3.30.2006 7:01pm
James of England:
Dutch, the problem is greater than simply the obvious necessity for academics to be able to quote and cite. It's true that we see further when we stand on the shoulders of giants, but we cannot even stand on our own two feet under a policy where we cannot freely choose to rely on the words of others. All of language is paraphrase. There is no fundamental difference between the banning of the quotation of a cartoonist and the banning of the words "parity" and "wave". Obviously, the developers of either word would be free to use them, so long as they did so in a manner that wasn't offensive to aquatic life.
3.31.2006 1:53pm