April 11, 2002
President Mark G. Yudof
University of Minnesota
202 Morrill Hall
100 Church Street S.E.
Minneapolis, MN 55455
Dear President Yudof:
We write to express concern over the decision by the University of Minnesota to establish an external review committee to evaluate publishing criteria and processes at the University of Minnesota Press. Notwithstanding the disclaimer by Christine Maziar, this action, coming in response to criticisms of the Press over the forthcoming publication of Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex by Judith Levine, does in fact undermine academic freedom and the credibility of this highly-respected publishing house, helps perpetuate a taboo on the subject of minors and sexuality, and invites future attempts at intellectual blackmail.
Dean Maziar is quoted on the University’s website saying, "As a public university, we are accountable and responsive to the public." While that is certainly true in a general sense, the University’s desire to be "accountable and responsive to the public" plainly cannot be allowed to undermine its own primary mission and obligation: to encourage learning and promote the freedom to think, read, question, and dissent, all of which are protected under the First Amendment. The establishment of the external review committee occurred in direct response to the objections to this book, and reasonable observers will inevitably perceive it as intimidation. The clear message to university presses is that they will face harsh scrutiny every time they dare publish material that explores a controversial issue.
While the dispute has little bearing on "academic standards," it says a great deal about political pressures to silence certain views and speakers. In this respect, the public attacks you face are similar to those encountered by the Brooklyn Museum over a painting that offended some viewers’ religious beliefs. The Museum, like the university a forum for different ideas, gained respect, gratitude, and ultimately legal vindication, for resisting pressure and upholding First Amendment freedoms and values. Likewise, Indiana – Purdue University successfully defended its decision to present Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi, when state legislators and others sued to block the production. (In these cases, as here, some critics had not actually seen the material to which they objected.)
Controversial ideas are entitled to full protection in the academic setting. The First Amendment protects against the "tyranny of the majority" over ideas, and even protects wrong-headed and mistaken views. The answer to bad speech is "more speech, not enforced silence." A university press is the best (and often the only available) publisher of serious work on culturally controversial topics. If even highly-respected university presses, like yours, back out, not only is academic freedom threatened, but the very openness of the public sphere is put into question. We urge you to affirm the University’s commitment to intellectual and academic freedom, to support the judgments of the Press’s faculty advisory board and outside experts, and to reconsider the decision to conduct an external review at this time.
Instead we urge you to sponsor a public forum to air differing views about the book, the topic, and the role of the university in mediating cultural, intellectual, and legal disputes. We would be delighted to work with you in crafting such a response.
Joan E. Bertin
National Coalition Against Censorship
On behalf of:
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression
First Amendment Project
Feminists for Free Expression
National Coalition Against Censorship
National Writers Union
PEN American Center