Index on Censorship (“Britain’s Leading Organisation Promoting Freedom of Expression) Self-Censors in Article About Yale University Press’s Self-Censorship

The Index of Censorship ran an interview with Jytte Klausen, which was titled (at least in the online version) “See No Evil,” and began this way:

Jytte Klausen talks to Index on Censorship about her new book on the Danish cartoons crisis and discusses why it was published without any illustrations

Jytte Klausen’s book The Cartoons That Shook the World (published by Yale University Press) is the first scholarly examination of the notorious controversy that erupted in 2006. Klausen is a respected scholar: she won the Carnegie Scholars Award for her research on Muslims in Europe and is professor of comparative politics at Brandeis University in the US. Three years ago, she set out to unravel the genesis of the debacle and to analyse the cartoons and their impact. Last summer, several months before publication, Yale University Press unexpectedly took the decision not to publish the cartoons in her book. After reading Klausen’s manuscript in the spring, the director of the press, John Donatich, was ambivalent about republishing the cartoons: on grounds of taste, offence and the possibility that it might reignite the conflict. He also noted that the cartoons were available for readers to see online. He consulted Yale University who assembled an advisory panel of diplomats, academics and US and UK counter-terrorism officials who advised that there was a strong chance of violence breaking out if the cartoons were published. Klausen was told that she could only read the gagging order. Not only were the cartoons removed from the book, but historic illustrations of Mohammed that Klausen had wanted to include to illustrate her thesis were also omitted. When the story leaked to the American press last summer, Yale was widely criticised for undermining academic freedom. Christopher Hitchens described it as “the latest and perhaps the worst episode in the steady surrender to religious extremism”. In a statement, Yale University Press defended its decision with reference to the expert panel’s advice “that there existed a substantial likelihood of violence that might take the lives of innocent victims”. John Donatich took full responsibility for the final decision, but there have been concerns at the university’s intervention in the press’s independence.

But the interview was published without any of the cartoons that were the subject of Klausen’s book, and of the controversy surrounding the book. The reason, given in the statement from the Index Chair (click on the link to read the full statement):

A year earlier, in September 2008, four men had been arrested for allegedly fire-bombing the North London home of the publisher of Gibson Books who had proposed publishing The Jewel of Medina. Only the most cavalier attitude towards the safety and security of those directly and indirectly involved in the publication of the Index interview would have failed to note that outrage.

The board’s main concern was both for individual members of the Index staff and those who worked for the seven other organisations which share our Free Word premises in Farringdon Road, and who would have been equally on the receiving end of any attack aimed at Index. Nonetheless, a decision to prevent the re-publication of the cartoons (Index had decided against their publication in the magazine when the worldwide protests erupted in 2005) could not be taken lightly by those responsible for leading an organisation whose very essence is to protect and enhance freedom of expression in a world where the rich and powerful are busy eroding what ought to be a fundamental right in any civilised society.

For this reason I consulted the Index editor and established that, in her view, publication of the cartoons — though very desirable — was not crucial to an interview which did not focus on the cartoons themselves but on the process by which Yale decided against their publication….

Here’s a dissenting statement from Index board member Kenan Malik:

Index on Censorship has in recent years chronicled many instances of what we’ve called “pre-emptive censorship”: the willingness to censor material because of fear either of causing offence or of unleashing violence. From the Deutsche Oper cancelling a production of Idomeneo to Random House dropping The Jewel of Medina to Yale University Press’s refusal to publish the cartoons in Jytte Klausen’s book, the list is depressingly long. It is a development that, writing in the magazine last year, I described as “the internalisation of the fatwa”.

It is both disturbing and distressing to find Index on Censorship itself now on that list. I profoundly disagree not just with the decision to censor the cartoons but also with the reasons for doing so: that publication may have endangered staff and was “unnecessary” and, indeed, would have been “gratuitous”.

The safety of Index’s staff is, of course, hugely important. But where was the threat? Index certainly received none because no one knew that we were going to publish. Nor is there any reason to believe that there would have been danger had the cartoons not been pre-emptively censored. Islamic scholar Reza Aslan, describing Yale’s original decision as “idiotic”, pointed out that he has “written and lectured extensively about the incident and shown the cartoons without any negative reaction”. And, as Jo Glanville, editor of Index on Censorship, observed in an article in the Guardian earlier this year critical of Random House, pre-emptive censorship often creates a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. In assuming that an “offensive” work will invite violence one both entrenches the idea that the work is offensive and helps create a culture that makes violence more likely.

The question that now arises is this: what should Index do when the next Jewel of Medina comes along? After all, we cannot in good conscience criticise others for taking decisions that we ourselves have taken and for the same reasons. So, does Index now believe that it was right for Deutsche Oper, Random House, Yale University Press (and myriad others) to censor?

As for the suggestion that publication would have been “unnecessary” or “gratuitous”, I cannot see what could be less unnecessary or gratuitous than using cartoons to illustrate an interview with the author of a book that was censored by a refusal to publish those very cartoons. Almost every case of pre-emptive censorship, including that of Yale University Press, has been rationalised on the grounds that the censored material was not necessary anyway. Once we accept that it is legitimate to censor that which is “unnecessary” or “gratuitous”, then we have effectively lost the argument for free speech.

Index on Censorship is involved in many important campaigns, from libel reform to the defence of threatened journalists. Its authority in these campaigns rests largely upon its moral integrity. As a long-standing board member, I am deeply committed both to the cause of free speech and to the success of Index in pursuing that cause. What I fear is that in refusing to publish the cartoons, Index is not only helping strengthen the culture of censorship, it is also weakening its authority to challenge that culture.

For a similar view to Malik’s, please see the Statement of Principle criticizing the Yale University Press decision (signed by, among others, Joan E. Bertin, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, Cary Nelson, President of the American Association of University Professors, and Nadine Strossen, former President of the ACLU). For the cartoons, posted and discussed on this blog, see here.

A terminological note: I generally don’t approve of using “censorship” or “self-censorship” to mean mere market pressure — or simply declining to publish something because of one’s own ethical judgment or a desire to accommodate one’s customers — at least setting aside special institutions that I argue ought to protect speech much as the government does. (For an extended discussion of that, see my Deterring Speech: When Is It “McCarthyism”? When Is It Proper?, 93 Cal. L. Rev. 1413 (2005).) But speech suppression by threat of private violence or vandalism strikes me as similar enough to speech suppression by threat of government force that the label “censorship” can reasonably cover both. Likewise, restricting one’s speech for fear of private violence strikes me as meriting the label “self-censorship” much like restricting one’s speech for fear of improper government suppression.

Thanks to Will Brennan for the pointer.

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