Christopher Hitchens' Slate column strikes me as quite right on this (emphasis and first link added):
The capitulation of Yale University Press to threats that hadn't even been made yet is the latest and perhaps the worst episode in the steady surrender to religious extremism -- particularly Muslim religious extremism -- that is spreading across our culture. A book called The Cartoons That Shook the World, by Danish-born Jytte Klausen, who is a professor of politics at Brandeis University, tells the story of the lurid and preplanned campaign of "protest" and boycott that was orchestrated in late 2005 after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran a competition for cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed....
Yale University Press announced last week that it would go ahead with the publication of [The Cartoons That Shook the World, a book about the Mohammed cartoon controversy], but it would remove from it the 12 caricatures that originated the controversy. Not content with this, it is also removing other historic illustrations of the likeness of the Prophet, including one by Gustave Doré of the passage in Dante's Inferno that shows Mohammed being disemboweled in hell. (These same Dantean stanzas have also been depicted by William Blake, Sandro Botticelli, Salvador Dalí, and Auguste Rodin, so there's a lot of artistic censorship in our future if this sort of thing is allowed to set a precedent.) ...
Islamic art contains many examples... of paintings of the Prophet, and even though the Dante example is really quite an upsetting one, exemplifying a sort of Christian sadism and sectarianism, there has never been any Muslim protest about its pictorial representation in Western art.
If that ever changes, which one can easily imagine it doing, then Yale has already made the argument that gallery directors may use to justify taking down the pictures and locking them away. According to Yale logic, violence could result from the showing of the images -- and not only that, but it would be those who displayed the images who were directly responsible for that violence.
Let me illustrate: The Aug. 13 New York Times carried a report of the university press' surrender, which quoted its director, John Donatich, as saying that in general he has "never blinked" in the face of controversy, but "when it came between that and blood on my hands, there was no question." ...
It was bad enough during the original controversy, when most of the news media -- and in the age of "the image" at that -- refused to show the cartoons out of simple fear. But now the rot has gone a serious degree further into the fabric. Now we have to say that the mayhem we fear is also our fault, if not indeed our direct responsibility. This is the worst sort of masochism, and it involves inverting the honest meaning of our language as well as what might hitherto have been thought of as our concept of moral responsibility. Last time this happened, I linked to the Danish cartoons so that you could make up your own minds about them, and I do the same today. Nothing happened last time, but who's to say what homicidal theocrat might decide to take offense now. I deny absolutely that I will have instigated him to do so, and I state in advance that he is directly and solely responsible for any blood that is on any hands. He becomes the responsibility of our police and security agencies, who operate in defense of a Constitution that we would not possess if we had not been willing to spill blood -- our own and that of others -- to attain it. The First Amendment to that Constitution prohibits any prior restraint on the freedom of the press. What a cause of shame that the campus of Nathan Hale should have pre-emptively run up the white flag and then cringingly taken the blood guilt of potential assassins and tyrants upon itself.
As I mentioned before, I have some sympathy for entities that refuse to distribute the cartoons. I would not fault them too much for that judgment, though "[i]t seems to me that leading bookstores [in that instance, Borders and Waldenbooks], like leading universities, need to take some risks -- and, yes, even risks that involve potential risks to customers and employees -- in order to protect the marketplace of ideas that sustains them."
Yet framing it as a matter of trying to avoid having "blood on [their] hands" is, for the reasons Hitchens gives, deeply wrong, and dangerous, because it lends Yale's credibility to the theory that we have a moral imperative to shut up, not just that this is one tolerable option. The next time someone does decide to publish the cartoons, and thugs decide to react by rioting, the publisher can be told, "Even Yale University Press agrees that what you did leaves you with blood on your hands."
Is that the message that our leading academic institutions should be sending? Not just that it's so easy to force Americans into silence, but that the threat of criminal violence is enough to make us morally obligated to be silent?