Seemingly Troubling Behavior from NYU:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group whose accounts I have generally found quite accurate, reports (see here for the version with links):

In violation of its own policies, New York University (NYU) is refusing to allow a student group to show the Danish cartoons of Mohammed at a public event tonight. Even though the purpose of the event is to show and discuss the cartoons, an administrator has suddenly ordered the students either not to display them or to exclude 150 off-campus guests from attending....

Earlier this month, the NYU Objectivist Club decided to hold a panel discussion entitled “Free Speech and the Danish Cartoons,” at which the cartoons will be displayed.... Like previous NYU Objectivist Club events, the discussion was to be open to the public.

However, on Monday afternoon, NYU Director of Student Activities Robert Butler sent an e-mail requesting a meeting with the leaders of the Objectivist Club the next day. He also informed them that NYU would now “require that this event be open only to members of the NYU community.” Butler cited “the campus climate and controversy surrounding the cartoons,” ordering the students to inform the “non-NYU people” who had already registered that they “should not plan on attending.” He concluded, “This is not negotiable.”

Following the meeting, Butler sent another e-mail clarifying that the students have two choices: they must either not display the cartoons, or not allow anyone from off campus to attend the event. Approximately 150 off-campus guests are currently registered to attend....

NYU is a private institution, and is thus legally free to limits access to its property however it pleases. But most private universities have generally understood their mission as including enriching the intellectual lives of their students and fostering debate among students, including by helping the students spread the message to the broader community. FIRE reports that NYU has indeed accepted this view: "NYU’s own policies recognize student groups’ right to open events to the public." Events focusing on the Mohammed cartoons should be no less protected by NYU's policies than events focusing on other controversial ideological questions, whether involving race, sex, class, politics, or religion.

Now I understand that NYU might be concerned about the risk of vandalism or violence that might flow from events that display and discuss the cartoons. But it seems to me that leading universities should be at the forefront of defending speech against those who would suppress it, rather than giving in to the vandals' and thugs' heckler's veto.

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NYU Mohammed Cartoons Event Effectively Closed to the Press:

Canonist reports, apropos NYU's closing of the Mohammed cartoons event to off-campus visitors:

UPDATE: A notice just went out over the AP that the event tonight is closed to the press. I called FIRE to ask what happened, and they said that NYU was closing the event to anyone who didn’t register before noon yesterday. That is essentially shutting out the press, as in all likelihood few even heard of the event until yesterday afternoon. As anyone covering the City knows, even an appearance by Bill Clinton requires a pre-registration of at most a few hours.

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Latest NYU Panel Development:

FYI
PRESS ADVISORY
AYN RAND INSTITUTE
2121 Alton Parkway, Suite 250, Irvine, CA 92606

TONIGHT’S NYU FREE SPEECH EVENT IS OPEN TO THE PRESS
In order to allow entry to non-NYU guests, the student organization sponsoring this event has been forced by NYU administrators to NOT display the Danish cartoons. The panel discussion on free speech will nevertheless proceed as planned.

Pretty sad.

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NYU Violated Its Own Expressed Policies in the Cartoon Case:

From the NYU Students' Guide, Guidelines Regarding Protest and Dissent (p. 208, PDF page 116) (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."

This incident is a pretty sad commentary on the values of the NYU administration, it seems to me.

For a report on the event, see Right Wing Reason.

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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.

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We Are All Danes Now, Continued:

More from FIRE on the NYU event:

  1. "[T]he students were allowed to admit only 75 of the approximately 150 off-campus guests who had registered. Stephan Walker, the vice president of the Objectivist Club, confirmed to FIRE that even several members of the media had to be turned away."

  2. "Later, Lukianoff and a blogger both observed a student being forced to remove a shirt depicting one of the cartoons."

  3. "Finally, following through on plans divulged in an e-mail in FIRE’s possession, members of the Bengali Student Association apparently obtained and then ripped up many of the student tickets for the event. Walker has a bag of these torn-up tickets."

  4. "As an NYU spokesman told Inside Higher Ed, the university’s objection to the cartoons is based on the fact that 'an important group in our Muslim community made it clear that they found the display of the cartoons deeply offensive.'"

  5. "The spokesman also told the New York Sun that 'it wasn't necessary to show the cartoons to discuss them.' ... [T]he spokesman said the following to NYU’s student paper: 'Realistically, one can have a discussion on smallpox without actually handing out the the live virus to the audience.' [But] making decisions about what is too offensive to be shown to people is none of NYU’s business -- and infecting people with smallpox is not the same as showing them a cartoon[.]"

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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.

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How True!

The Times Higher Education Supplement (U.K.) reports, Mar. 17, 2006:

Academic freedom is under threat in even the most modern democratic nations, John Sexton, president of New York University, warned this week.

He told a joint meeting of the New York-based Scholars at Risk and the UK's Council for Assisting Refugee Academics that for too many scholars the problem of freedom, or the lack of it, was painfully concrete....

"Forces outside our gates increasingly threaten the sanctuary of our campuses.

"The very diversity of the global village that enriches us simultaneously activates those, including some holding great power, who would limit the scope of our conversations and silence the diversity of voices....

"[E]very university president at some point faces external pressure because a speaker deemed 'controversial' is coming to campus ....

"Those who care about vibrant debate within the university must resist such doctrinaire approaches -- what a colleague has called 'a culture of constraint' -- whether from the Left or Right."

Yes, indeed. And, only two short weeks later ....

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Message from the NYU Provost About the Mohammed Cartoons Matter:

Provost David W. McLaughlin sent this message in response to a student's inquiry, and then gave me permission to post it:

Thank you for writing. I'm sorry I wasn't able to respond sooner on behalf of John Sexton and myself.

I disagree with a number of your views with respect to the event involving the Danish cartoons.

First of all, at no time did the University say that cartoons could not be shown; indeed, just the reverse. For that reason, I reject the assertion that free speech was abridged. That the Objectivist Club, the student organization, ultimately chose not to include the display in its event was its decision, not the University's. The University made clear to the club -- as well as to the Muslim groups on campus asking for the cartoon display to be prohibited -- that the display would be permitted.

Secondly, you, like the Muslim students on campus, have a right to make your voice heard when you think something is objectionable. We would handle your objections no differently; that is, our tradition of free speech would prevail, as it did in this instance.

Thirdly, as to the media -- I believe this matter has been mischaracterized by several media outlets, driven by accounts offered by others that have been crafted in a way to obscure the crucial, central fact: the University made clear that the cartoons could be displayed as part of the event.

Good luck with your studies. Thanks for writing

I should say that I'm quite unpersuaded by this message -- unless I'm mistaken, it's quite clear that NYU did indeed insist that the Objectivist Club choose between (1) displaying the cartoons, in which case the event would be closed to audience members from off-campus (even though NYU student groups are generally allowed to open their events), or (2) having the event be open to off-campus visitors, but not displaying the cartoon. It's hard for me to say that, given this, "at no time did the University say that cartoons could not be shown; indeed, just the reverse." But if I'm mistaken on the facts, I'd much appreciate being corrected.

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