Wednesday, March 29, 2006

NYU, Danish Cartoons, Censorship

I am a recent convert to the importance of the campus watchdog group, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). I like the new president, Greg Lukianoff, and believe he truly cares about all free speech violations, not just aggrieved conservatives. Today, he just alerted me to this story at NYU:

NEW YORK, March 29, 2006—In violation of its own policies, New York University (NYU) is refusing to allow a student group to show the Danish cartoons of Mohammed at a public event tonight. Even though the purpose of the event is to show and discuss the cartoons, an administrator has suddenly ordered the students either not to display them or to exclude 150 off-campus guests from attending. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is urging NYU’s president to reverse course and stand up for freedom of speech.

“NYU’s actions are inexcusable,” declared FIRE President Greg Lukianoff, who is slated to speak at the event. “The very purpose of this event is to discuss the cartoons that are at the center of a global controversy. To say that students cannot show them if they wish to engage anyone outside the NYU community is both chilling and absurd. The fact that expression might provoke a strong reaction is a reason to protect it, not an excuse to punish it.”

Earlier this month, the NYU Objectivist Club decided to hold a panel discussion entitled “Free Speech and the Danish Cartoons,” at which the cartoons will be displayed. Similar events, sponsored by the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), have taken place on several other campuses. Like previous NYU Objectivist Club events, the discussion was to be open to the public.

However, on Monday afternoon, NYU Director of Student Activities Robert Butler sent an e-mail requesting a meeting with the leaders of the Objectivist Club the next day. He also informed them that NYU would now “require that this event be open only to members of the NYU community.” Butler cited “the campus climate and controversy surrounding the cartoons,” ordering the students to inform the “non-NYU people” who had already registered that they “should not plan on attending.” He concluded, “This is not negotiable.”

Following the meeting, Butler sent another e-mail clarifying that the students have two choices: they must either not display the cartoons, or not allow anyone from off campus to attend the event. Approximately 150 off-campus guests are currently registered to attend.

“This is a classic case of the heckler’s veto,” noted FIRE’s Lukianoff. “NYU is shamelessly clamping down on an event purely out of fear that people who disagree with the viewpoints expressed may disrupt it. These immoral, last-minute restrictions must be lifted.”

FIRE was informed of NYU’s actions just yesterday. Hours later, Lukianoff called NYU President John Sexton to remind him that NYU’s own policies recognize student groups’ right to open events to the public and proclaim that “the use of physical force or other disruptive means to obstruct and restrain speakers” is “destructive of the pursuit of inquiry and learning in a free and democratic society.” FIRE has not yet received a response.

NYU’s actions notwithstanding, Lukianoff still plans to speak at the event, which will take place at 7 p.m. tonight in the Eisner and Lubin Auditorium of NYU’s Kimmel Center.

First let me make some preliminary disclaimers (of course). I am no fan of Ayn Rand devotees. I also think the "danish cartoons" trade on racist, bigoted images. However, I do believe in Free Speech and I have very little trust in most Dean of Student type administrators. I get twitchy when I know such folks are making these type of fascist decisions to shut down free speech. College campuses should be exactly the places that most fervently protect free speech.

I am also quite familiar with what Lukianoff calls the "heckler's veto." We had our own experience of that here on my small campus two years ago. We were bringing in John Sims doing an exhibit on the history of lynching ("The Recoloration Proclomation"). Now, my campus is right in the middle of a civil war battlefield. And, Sims was going to make an installation piece specifically for this exhibit that would "lynch" the confederate flag. The usual suspects (Sons of the Confederate Veterans) protested this exhibit, claiming it was tasteless, racist, disrespectful, undignified. Some college administrators opted to keep the exhibit but asked the artist if he would move the gallows inside for safety measures (to protect the students from potentially violent protestors). Understandably, this pissed of the artist, who decided to protest the college's decision by not appearing at the opening.

This issue was a disappointment to the faculty who nearly unanimously defended the artists' right to exhibit his installation piece. The day of the opening a handful of the "sons of the confederates" showed up in their pick up trucks, circled around town because they couldn't find a parking spot, and ended up drinking at a local pub (that they had earlier threaten to boycott). The college had blocked off the street in front of the gallery to allow for them to march. Apparently, they had no desire to march but wanted to drive their pick ups through town and wave the confederate flag around. Unable to park, they missed the whole opening. So much for the hecklers.

The most disappointing aspect of that exhibit was how little the students (on the whole) cared about the free speech issues at stake in this debacle. The students who did get exercised were largely angry that the college would allow such a tasteless exhibit on campus. I guess defending free speech is only worthwhile when the speaker is saying what you want to hear. I wish we had had FIRE here during that issue.