Issue 111, Winter 2009/2010

Last summer, Yale University decided to strip all images of Mohammed from The Cartoons that Shook the World, by Jytte Klausen, a scholarly review of the events surrounding the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy published by Yale University Press. (See CN 101) To justify the decision, University officials cited concerns that the book might stimulate violence “somewhere in the world,” even though no actual threats had been received. NCAC and other free speech and academic groups protested in a letter to Yale President Richard Levin and the Yale Corporation. The letter criticized the University for abandoning principles of academic freedom in the face of hypothetical threats.

A serious concern remains that other institutions will follow Yale’s lead.  If so, the effects on scholarship could be dramatic.  Moreover, acceding to threats of violence is only likely to encourage others to use the same kind of threat tactics.

In an attempt to counter this possibility, NCAC has spearheaded an initiative to call attention to the peril of yielding to fear of violence and to mobilize groups with an interest in academic freedom to stand up in its defense.  Here are brief excerpts from the Statement of Principle and Call to Action that NCAC developed in collaboration with the American Association of University Professors.

“… [O]ur long-standing commitment to the free exchange of ideas is in peril of falling victim to a spreading fear of violence. Not only have exhibitions been closed and performances canceled in response to real threats, but the mere possibility that someone, somewhere, might respond with violence has been advanced to justify suppressing words and images, as in the recent decision of Yale University to remove all images of Mohammed from Jytte Klausen’s book, The Cartoons that Shook the World.

“…The possibility of giving offense and provoking violence has entered the imagination of academic institutions, curators, publishers and the public at large, generating more and more incidents of preemptive self-censorship.

“…The incident at Yale provides an opportunity to re-examine our commitment to free expression. When an academic institution of such standing asserts the need to suppress scholarly work because of a theoretical possibility of violence “somewhere in the world,” it grants legitimacy to censorship and casts serious doubt on their, and our, commitment to freedom of expression in general, and academic freedom in particular.

“…The failure to stand up for free expression emboldens those who would attack and undermine it. It is time for colleges and universities in particular to exercise moral and intellectual leadership. It is incumbent on those responsible for the education of the next generation of leaders to stand up for certain basic principles: that the free exchange of ideas is essential to liberal democracy; that each person is entitled to hold and express his or her own views without fear of bodily harm; and that the suppression of ideas is a form of repression used by authoritarian regimes around the world to control and dehumanize their citizens and squelch opposition.”

NCAC and AAUP have been joined in this effort by an impressive group of organizations, including the Modern Language Association, College Art Association, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, National Council of Teachers of English, International Publish Association, American Society of Journalists and Authors, the ACLU, People for the American Way, among others.  We look forward to working with these and other groups on educational programs and other efforts to encourage vigorous defense of the university as a place where ideas, no matter how disturbing, can be explored.