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.

A lot of university presidents like to extol the virtues of "open dialogue" in the abstract when there's no controversy on their doorstep.

Once the speaker actually shows up, the president will often either remain behind closed doors or say something about how the speaker's values somehow equate to hate, which is "incompatible with the values of our institution" or some such nonsense.

While Sexton's piece on free speech is a bit better thought-out than most, I think I'd be more surprised if no such writing were out there, or if he'd actually supported the student group that wanted to show the cartoons. Sad day indeed.
4.3.2006 7:58am
Donald Kahn (mail):
I would like to be able to say that of course the cartoons should be shown. However - when you stir up mad dogs, you had better have in mind what your next step might be.

America proved 40 years ago that it did not have the moral strength to do what is needed in the face of mobs, which is to shoot them. And it has gone downhill in the interim.
4.3.2006 9:27am
Smithy (mail) (www):
I guess for the Marxists that run our universities "open dialog" means "dialog with other leftists". It is sad indeed that our universities have become nothing more than echo chambers for the far left. The government can and should do something about this. There must be a way to mandate equal time for opposing view points at universities. I'm not a lawyer, but many of you are. How might we draft such a law?
4.3.2006 9:39am
Patrick_Brown (mail):
Sexton's cowardice on this occasion will be the gift that keeps on giving. From now on, one hopes, whenever NYU allows extremely controversial meetings or speakers or displays on campus, which it inevitably will, people will ask Sexton, "What's the difference? Why did you allow this and not the cartoons?" The only truthful answer would be "Because I was afraid of the people who protested the cartoons." He won't say that, and each time more people will see that his words are untrue, and he will gradually slip into irrelevance. He has made a Faustian bargain.
4.3.2006 9:45am
SenatorX (mail):
Exactly Patrick_Brown. What a hypocrite this guy is. A cowardly dog even. Well unless he (and NYU) has coffers full of saudi oil money that is. In that case he would just be a run of the mill whore.
4.3.2006 10:30am
Jonathan Goodman (mail):
There is a line between discussing controversial issues and deliberately offending people. It may be far out, but it is not offensive to suggest that we protect ourselves from future terrorist attacks by resolving the conflicts that give rise to them. The Danish cartoons are offensive. We don't show them on campus for the same reason we don't show, say, kiddie porn. The obvious glee that some take in offending main stream Moslems does not put them an a very positive light.
4.3.2006 10:39am
Tom O'Bedlam:
Mr. Goodman states, "The Danish cartoons are offensive" as though there were some Platonic form of "offensiveness" being instantiated, valid for all times, all places, and all people. On the contrary, "offense" (like beauty) is in the eye of the beholder. The cartoons are not offensive to everybody. I speculate that even among Muslims there are a lot of mainstream Muslims for whom the cartoons are not offensive. I question the value of allowing all the rest of us (non-offended Muslims included) to be bullied by that portion of the Muslim community that claims to be offended.
4.3.2006 10:57am
The Danish cartoons are offensive.

So is "Piss Christ," to some; not to mention "The Vagina Monologues", immodest costumes on cheerleaders, Young Republicans/Democrats clubs and so on. If there's a general principle being invoked here, we won't be seeing these things on campus any more but somehow I doubt it.
4.3.2006 11:10am
Gaijin Biker (mail) (www):
How nice it would have been had Sexton said something like:

"NYU students who object to a serious discussion of the most newsworthy drawings of our age are manifestly incapable of participating in the exchange of ideas that is at the very heart of this University's mission. Withdrawal forms are available for them in my office.

If they choose to remain students here, however, they will be expected to allow this event to take place free of disruption, and will be punished accordingly if they do not."
4.3.2006 11:13am
America proved 40 years ago that it did not have the moral strength to do what is needed in the face of mobs, which is to shoot them.

The government can and should do something about this. There must be a way to mandate equal time for opposing view points at universities.

Guess the whole idea of limited government is not as popular among the commentators here as it is among the main posters.

Should all mobs be shot? Or only violent ones? Should all the people in a mob in which some people are violent be shot, or only the violent individuals? Does any "mob" count? What's a "mob"?

Smithy, if you think the gov't should force universities (and I assume you include private ones like NYU) to give equal time to opposing viewpoints, do you think Pat Robertson should be forced to give equal time to proponents of gay sex? Should all churches be forced to have a pro-sin sermon following their discussions of the evils of sin?

Note that none of this is meant to excuse NYU's behavior here, which I think was clearly mistaken.
4.3.2006 11:15am
Justin (mail):
"America proved 40 years ago that it did not have the moral strength to do what is needed in the face of mobs, which is to shoot them."

Okay, is there ANOTHER Jesus that I don't know about, one that likes killing people he doesn't agree with, or does the OP refer to CorporateJesus(TM) when he says "moral"?
4.3.2006 11:35am
Justin (mail):
Without defending the substance of Mr. Goodman's post, I think his detractors should realized that he modified the verb "to offend" with the adverb "deliberately", which would, for instance, seperate the concept from Piss Christ, the Vagina Monologues, and the Young Democrats (jury's still out on Cheerleaders and the Young Republicans).
4.3.2006 11:38am
Justin (mail):
Gajin - I think NYU's ultimate decision was to not allow the cartoons to be republished IF it was open to the non-NYU public, which would make your deterrence less useful.
4.3.2006 11:39am
Robert Lyman (mail):
The Danish cartoons are offensive.

No kidding. I just hate pictures of bearded men leading donkeys through the desert. Nothing can get my hackles up like that combination. I mean, if only it had been a camel, I'd be less upset. But a donkey! And he has a beard! It think he might be wearing sandals, too, which is really the last straw. If I blow myself up later today, I hope you'll understand that this sort of obscene man-leading-donkey material, which strikes at the heart of all I believe in, is the real culprit.

I'd much rather very serious photos of, say, a crucifix dunked in urine. Nobody could possibly imagine that the creator of that piece meant to offend anybody at all. I'm sure he was just as surprised as I was when somebody objected. It's just so obviously a profound and sublime statement, which has nothing at all to do with disdain for religion or believers.

I know that Mulsims don't like depictions of Mohammed. Fine for them. Jews (and, come to that Muslims) don't like ham, but I'll be they serve ham sandwiches at NYU. And meat and cheese together on pizza, too.

I could probably come up with a hundred cartoons lampooning "gun nuts," conservative Christians, Jews, black conservatives, anti-war protesters, bloggers, illegal immigrants, whomever you like. All from relatively mainstream domestic sources, too. Would NYU make me show only blank boards at a discussion of them? Even though they're "offensive"?
4.3.2006 12:04pm
Eric Rasmusen (mail) (www):
The top of the post ought to note that the Sexton speech is from 2004, rather than being a 2006 reaction to the Mohammed cartoons. I don't know whether that makes its contradiction by the university's actions look better, or worse.
4.3.2006 12:07pm
Smithy (mail) (www):
Here's a question I have: would NYU display the Piss Christ or Cow Dung Virgin Mary in their art gallery? If the answer to that is "yes", but they wouldn't display the Mohammed cartoons, then they are indeed guilty of both anti-Christian bigotry and cowardice in the face of Islamic extremism.
4.3.2006 12:14pm
JosephSlater (mail):
The "Sexton legacy" was already at least very seriously undermined by his poor treatment of the NYU grad students' union.
4.3.2006 12:54pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
While I am among the first--if not leading the pack by a good bit--to insist that the PC "offendedness" is entirely feigned, deliberatly ginned up, and a flat lie designed to manipulate, I would say that it is possible that some Muslims could be offended about this.

So what?

It's a free country. They can be offended all they like.

In no way whatsoever does this offendedness, even if (most unlikely) genuinely felt, justify violence or threats of violence. Which we all know. The problem is that if a bunch of Muslims try to disrupt something, one of two things will happen. It will be disrupted and they will be arrested, in which case we will see only Muslims arrested and the PC liberals will complain about "hate", "homophobia", "profiling", and "racism."

Or, two, trying to avoid such reproaches, the authorities do not arrest/throw out the disrupters, thereby giving them even more power.

If the college authorities had any spine--inconceivable concept--they would take the first course and its consequences. But we're talking about college authorities, here.

It occurs to me that the insistence that every group threatening to become disruptive is a victim group is designed to excuse the authorities from dealing with them as disruption should be handled.
4.3.2006 1:13pm
Hans Bader (mail):
John Sexton is a complete phony, a hypocrite, and a pompous fool.
4.3.2006 2:01pm
I'd quibble about whether they're the most newsworthy cartoons in history. "Unite or Die" still looks a bit more newsworthy from where I sit today. On the other hand, the "Cross of Gold" cartoons are the next closest candidate I can think of after that. There might have been some from the WWII era, and a case could be made for some of the cartoons about evolution. However, I'd easily grant that as a group they're indubitably in the top half dozen or so.

The cartoons are not only newsworthy, but intrinsic to the issue. On the other hand, consider a discussion of when sexually explicit material crosses the line to obscenity. Perhaps (as a hypothetical) an art exhibit ranging from vanilla girl-in-bikini to various extreme kinky erotica, prompting protests from religious groups alleging obscenity. Would it be relevant to ask to what extent the exhibited images be considered comparably intrinsic to such a discussion? Would (and should) it be any different when the debate is in the forum of public opinion versus a court of law?
4.3.2006 3:06pm
David Orlinoff (mail):
My daughter, a (Jewish) student at NYU, had this to say about this post:

Well, it's not really accurate to compare actions taken by Sexton and what he says the university stands for and ultimately what the Objectivist Club, the organization that sponsored the event, decided to do. And, for the
record, I don't think anyone was worried about a violent reaction. That's just dumb. The Islamic Club is mainly 20 year old girls from Detroit and New Jersey.
4.3.2006 3:20pm
Gene Vilensky (mail) (www):
Mr. Orlinoff--

I believe that your daughter missed the point. NYU was worried about a violent reaction from people from the outside (not the Islamic Club), since the event was open to the public.

Also, why is it not accurate to compare Sexton's statements with what he forced the Objectivist Club to do, namely not show the cartoons? I'm mildly baffled by her statement. Maybe I'm misunderstanding something.
4.3.2006 4:40pm
Duncan Frissell (mail):
His talk could have been stronger if he had given examples of controversil right-wing speakers who should be allowed to speak rather than merely left-wing speakers.
4.3.2006 6:36pm
SenatorX (mail):
"The Islamic Club is mainly 20 year old girls..."

What a FUN club that must be! I WONDER what they talk about?
4.3.2006 7:02pm
sam24 (mail):
We are blaming the president of NYU for our own group and national failures. We expect him to show, in this case, physical courage, ie "we will speak our piece even if you bomb us". Perhaps he has physical courage, but feels he has a responsibility to protect the institution and its students when society has failed to provide an atmosphere free of actual physical threat. We can expect more of the same until we as a nation are willing to become absolutely intolerant of physical threats and are willing to take approiate action, even violent action to preserve the things we value. To be a pacifist in this case is to aid the enemies of freedom. Have I heard this somewhere before?
MD south of fly over country
4.4.2006 2:16am
Bezuhov (mail):
"I guess for the Marxists that run our universities "open dialog" means "dialog with other leftists".

"His talk could have been stronger if he had given examples of controversil right-wing speakers who should be allowed to speak rather than merely left-wing speakers."

I think it's actually liberals who run the universities, but liberals who came of age where all the interesting dissidents, at least the one's they'd heard of, came from the left. To them the right was Bull Connor and Nixon.

Subsequent generations have produced many different strands of dissent, many of which have self-identified as right-wing though sharing little with Connor or Nixon. The distinction is lost on the administrators, who after all have been kept quite busy raising money. Nor have they much noticed the illiberal moves made by much of the left they admired long ago or the emerging threat of Islamic demagogues who don't belong on the spectrum at all.
4.4.2006 5:41am
Bezuhov (mail):
To clarify, though they self-identify as right (some actually are identified that way by others, such as Instapundit, and deny it themselves) primarily because they oppose the illiberal moves of the left, and are actually quite liberal themselves.
4.4.2006 5:45am