NYU President Sexton on Academic Freedom:

From NYU President John Sexton's statement on the NYU Web site (a generally very thoughtful and interesting work, incidentally):

Forces outside our gates threaten the sanctity of the dialogue on campus. Begin with an obvious example. Every university president, and most deans, at some point have to face sometimes enormous external pressure because a controversial speaker is coming to campus. Inviting speakers from the right or from the left, from the fringes or even from the majority, often attracts varying degrees of protest and accompanying demands that the speaker be banned.

He gives various examples of events triggering this pressure, and of the importance of resisting it, such as "the visit of the Cuban Minister for Justice, Carlos Amat, to the NYU Law School while I was Dean," or a conference that (among other things) "provide[d] a platform for critics of America from the Islamic world." He also points to -- and I take it, implies the need to resist -- attempts to suppress speech through "intimidat[ion]," such as when "[a] group like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) assaults, targets and intimidates faculty and students engaged in research.

Sexton also rightly points out that "the president must speak to [the] fragility [of open dialogue] on campus and be resolute in resisting attacks upon it." And he (also rightly) points out that if "a faculty member or club sponsors a panel to discuss the Arab/Israeli conflict and invites a speaker who contends that Arabs and Palestinians have turned to violence to empower themselves and that, in this context, the attacks of September 11 are at least explainable," the speaker should not "be banned from campus," even "[i]n the face community of the inevitable thousands of phone calls and emails to the president's office the week before the event." And that though the inclusion of the speaker this will create "a short-term cost -- perhaps considerable," such as offense or "profound[] alien[ation]" to some, loss of contribution to the university, and more broadly "costs of all sorts" --

the short-term costs will be counterbalanced by long-term gains resulting from consistent fidelity to the principle of inclusion across an array of issues[, and] the long-term costs of exclusion, which in this case would involve a direct restriction of the freedom of members of the university to shape their own conversation within bounds of civil discourse, would be staggering. By introducing this form of censorship into the university's dialogic space, thereby narrowing even the scope of civil discourse, we would unleash a process of exclusion with which, history reveals, communities become all too comfortable applying all too widely and all too quickly. The temptation to retreat into comfortable conversational space is so alluring -- and so antithetical to the nature of the university we must build -- that it must be resisted at the outset.

Excellent words. But NYU's deeds in the cartoon controversy are not consistent with those words. These are, as people have pointed out, likely the most newsworthy cartoons in the history of cartooning. It's impossible to thoughtfully discuss the controversy over them, certainly with the concreteness and depth that an academic exchange demands, without showing them. Are they racist, as some say they are? Are they fair criticism or excessive criticism? Would much of esthetic or political value be lost by foregoing the representation of Mohammed in cartoons, movies, and the like? It's impossible to discuss this without displaying the cartoons and pointing out their details in the process of discussing them.

Though some have argued that the cartoons are outside the bounds "of civil discourse," that is the very point that the cartoons panel was trying to explore; and it seems to me that no university committed to academic freedom can just categorically accept claims that any depiction of Mohammed, or even any depiction of Mohammed used in the process of condemning Islam, is outside "civil discourse" and thus censorable. Discussing them in front of not just a purely NYU audience, but one that includes both NYU students, faculty, and staff and members of the public, simply fulfills the university's traditional role as a creator of knowledge and debate for the public's benefit, rather than some insular community of savants speaking only among themselves. NYU's own rules, and I suspect NYU groups' consistent practice, specifically contemplates that student-group-run events may be open to the public.

The sentiments set forth in Sexton's statement would thus dictate that NYU unambiguously protect a student group's rights to display and discuss the cartoons. Yet the theoretical possibility of some violent reaction -- coupled, of course, with concern over "the sensibilities of its students" -- seems to have been enough to make NYU abandon its high-minded academic freedom principles.

Never mind that NYU's own policies acknowledge that NYU "is committed to maintaining an environment where open, vigorous debate and speech can occur," which "may ... involve paying for extraordinary security measures in connection with a controversial speaker." Never mind that the risk of violent reaction to the cartoons in the U.S. seems fairly remote. Never mind that one can easily imagine the same level of risk whenever the violent fringes of any movement (the animal rights movement, the anti-abortion movement, the environmentalist movement, the anti-Castro movement) decide that they want to shut down speech they dislike through the risk of violence.

How easy it was to make NYU go back on its stated policies and principles: Just the possibility of thuggery was enough to the job. A sad day for elite American higher education; a sad day for NYU; and a sad day for the Sexton presidency and the Sexton legacy.