03/30/2006 05:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We Are All Danes Now

A student group at NYU wanted to put on an event this week that displayed and discussed the Mohammed cartoons. NYU insisted that the group either close the event to all non-NYU visitors, or not display the cartoons (the course that the group ultimately chose).

I called NYU to ask them for their take on the cartoon controversy, in particular with regard to NYU's Guidelines Regarding Protest and Dissent, which say (emphasis added): "A. Commitment and Responsibilities of the University. New York University is committed to maintaining an environment where open, vigorous debate and speech can occur. This commitment entails encouraging and assisting University organizations that want to sponsor speakers as well as informing members of the University community who seek guidance concerning forms of protest against speakers. It may also involve paying for extraordinary security measures in connection with a controversial speaker. Consistent with these obligations, the University promulgates these Guidelines, which are intended to be applied without regard to the content of any proposed speaker's speech."

The policy also goes on to recognize that NYU groups are entitled to invite people from outside NYU, so long as "the sponsoring organization ... provide[s] that at least a majority of the seats be available to the University community or portion thereof, as the case may be."

NYU transferred me to James Devitt at the press office, who kindly discussed the matter with me. Here were his responses, with quotes noting his literal words (emphasis mine).

(1) "NYU has to be concerned with its students' safety and well-being, which are among the factors that drove our decision in this matter."

(2) The decision was also based partly on NYU's "larger obligation as a university to the sensibilities of its students," many of whom are offended by the cartoons.

(3) As to the policy, "No-one's speech was curtailed." "If you read the policy, it talks about speakers' speech being curtailed, and to the best of my knowledge none of the speakers were the cartoons' authors."

This strikes me as a troubling position. First, despite its ostensible commitment to public debate, even when this requires extra security protection, the NYU opted to curtail debate. Second, NYU acknowledges that it was partly motivated by concern about other students' "sensibilities" -- a very troubling reason for a university to restrict student expression, especially expression as important and newsworthy as this (these are, as FIRE has pointed out, likely the most newsworthy cartoons in history).

Third, NYU's assertion that the protections offered student speech are limited to speech that the students literally "author[ed]" is especially troubling. Under this logic, NYU's blocking distribution of the Quran or the Bible wouldn't "curtail" anyone's "speech," since of course the distributors are quite unlikely to be the Quran's or Bible's authors (or even authors of the particular translation). Likewise if NYU wanted to stop students from waving flags that they didn't personally design, from reading excerpts of important political works, or for that matter from distributing copies of the First Amendment. Such a reading would dramatically cut back on the speech protections that NYU has promised to its students. I hope that NYU faculty and others with influence at NYU are paying close attention to this controversy, and pressing the administration to mend its ways.

For more on this controversy, and on how badly it reflects on NYU's courage and commitment to academic freedom, see here.