The National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Association of University Professors, joined by leading groups in the academic, civil liberties, journalism, and free speech fields, issued a Statement of Principle and Call to Action urging governments, institutions and private individuals to support freedom of expression and academic freedom, and to resist caving in to threats of violence, real and imagined.

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.

Self-censorship is a way of avoiding issues that should be addressed and avoiding responsibility for being part of the conversation.  The right to free speech is meaningless if it can be defeated simply by saying that someone might take offense and lash out.

The statement notes that threats of violence against words and images are not the sole province of religious extremists. Among the examples cited in the statement:

  • in 2005, a politically controversial professor’s scheduled speech at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY was canceled in response to threats of violence.
  • in 2008, the San Francisco Art Institute closed a controversial video exhibition in response to threats of violence against faculty members by animal rights activists.
  • in 2008, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln canceled a speech by former Weatherman and education theorist William Ayers citing security concerns.

Cary Nelson, President of the American Association of University Professors, says,

Academic freedom is a principle that cannot survive if it is repeatedly compromised. Every time an individual or an institution stands up to a threat of violence it strengthens all of us. And every time fear wins we are all diminished.

Yesterday’s statement was issued following the recent publication by Yale University Press of a scholarly treatise, The Cartoons That Shook the World, in which Yale officials removed every image of the prophet Mohammed from the book, against the author’s wishes and to the wide condemnation of groups and individuals across the political spectrum.

The book, by Professor Jytte Klausen, examines the violence that erupted in 2005 after a dozen drawings of the prophet Mohammed by Danish cartoonists ignited a firestorm in some parts of the world, fueled in part by clerics and politicians who used them to inflame crowds.  Since then, the images have been reprinted and many are readily available online.

Yale officials cited “generic” fears of violence as the reason for excising all of the images, but, as NCAC, AAUP and others noted in a September 16 letter to University officials: “No one involved in the decision has cited any actual threat of violence as a justification for the decision.” A news release and link to the September letter is online here.

Ironically, as today’s statement notes, the Danish cartoons were originally published in response to rising concerns about fear-induced self-censorship.

The following groups have endorsed the Statement:

Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska
American Association of University Professors
American Civil Liberties Union
American Federation of Teachers
American Jewish Committee
American Society of Journalists and Authors
Center for Democracy and Technology
Center for Inquiry
College Art Association
First Amendment Lawyers Association
First Amendment Project
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
International Publishers Association
Modern Language Association
National Association of Scholars
National Coalition Against Censorship
National Council of Teachers of English
National Education Association
Norwegian PEN
People For the American Way Foundation

(List in formation)

The full text of the statement can be found here.

A recent NCAC blog post about the book censorship issue, including Yale University’s response, can be found here. NCAC’s original response to the publication of the cartoons can be found here. Cary Nelson’s detailed comments on Yale’s decision were published online in the Yale Alumni Magazine.