“Yale Has Set a Terrible Precedent,” Says NCAC Director Joan Bertin

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Wednesday, September 16, 2009

CONTACT: Teresa Koberstein, NCAC, (212) 807-6222, x19/media@ncac.org

NEW YORK – The National Coalition Against Censorship, joined by 11 leading academic, civil liberties, journalism and free speech organizations, today sent a letter to Yale University officials protesting the school’s decision to remove all images of the prophet Mohammed from a scholarly treatise, The Cartoons That Shook the World, by Professor Jytte Klausen.

In particular, the groups objected to the university’s decision to remove the images based on “an unspecified fear of violence.” They also sharply criticized the secretive and unfair process that resulted in the decision to remove the images.

“Yale has set a terrible precedent,” said Joan E. Bertin, NCAC’s Executive Director. “Not only did it abandon principles of free expression and academic freedom, it did so in a way that emboldens those who would use threats of violence to achieve their goals. If a world-class university engages in such behavior, how many other institutions will be cowed into doing the same, or worse?”

The letter to President Richard C. Levin and members of the Yale Corporation was signed by: American Association of University Professors; American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression; American Civil Liberties Union; American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom; American Society of Journalists and Authors First Amendment Committee; Center for Inquiry; College Art Association; Freedom to Read Foundation; First Amendment Lawyers Association; First Amendment Project; Foundation for Individual Rights in Education; Middle East Studies; and National Coalition Against Censorship.

Klausen’s book, due to be published by Yale University Press in early October, examines the violence that erupted in 2005 after a dozen provocative 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 are readily available online.

The decision to remove all images of the prophet affected more than just the original Danish cartoons. It encompassed other illustrations that have never been thought controversial and are widely available, such as a drawing for a children’s book and artworks by Doré, Botticelli, Blake, Rodin, and Dalí.

“Given that this is a book about depictions of Mohammed, publishing it without the images is nonsensical and undermines the integrity of the work,” said Bertin. “One wonders why Yale agreed to publish the book in the first place.”

Yale officials cited “generic” fears of violence as the reason for excising all of the images, but as the groups noted in their letter: “No one involved in the decision has cited any actual threat of violence as a justification for the decision.”

“The problem with censoring words or images because of a fear of potential violence is that such arguments have no limits,” NCAC’s Bertin said, adding that “the right to free speech is meaningless if it can be defeated simply by saying that someone might take offense and lash out.”

The groups also criticized the “unorthodox and unprecedented” review of the book, in which unidentified non-academic consultants were asked to assess the risk of violence based on viewing the images alone, without access to the full manuscript. Further, the book’s author was denied the opportunity to read the report of the anonymous consultants or see comments made by these reviewers unless she signed a nondisclosure agreement, which she declined to do.

Some Mideast scholars consider Yale’s response an offensive form of stereotyping, because of its implicit assumption that followers of Islam are unpredictable and may resort to violence at the least provocation.

The university’s decision to censor the book has drawn criticism from many corners. Last week, 25 prominent Yale alumni sent a protest letter to Yale Alumni Magazine urging the university to restore the drawings to the book. Signers included former Bush administration speechwriter David Frum and John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, who called Yale’s decision “intellectual cowardice.” Other critics include commentators Christopher Hitchens, Roger Kimball and Martin Kramer; the American Jewish Committee; PEN American Center; and the editorial boards of the Washington Post, The Washington Times, The New York Daily News, and The New Haven Register, among others.

Full text of the letter from NCAC and its allies.

A recent NCAC blog post about the book censorship, including Yale University’s response, can be found here. NCAC’s original response to the publication of the cartoons can be found here.

The National Coalition Against Censorship (“NCAC”) is an alliance of more than 50 national non-profit literary, artistic, religious, educational, professional, labor, and civil liberties groups that are united in their commitment to freedom of expression. Founded in 1974, NCAC has worked to protect the First Amendment rights of thousands of artists, authors, teachers, students, librarians, readers, museum-goers, and others around the country.