Letter: A dishonest uproar

Also being a 2009 alum, I’d like to offer two quick responses to Tyler Hill’s column (“Practice what you teach,” Aug. 28) bemoaning Yale’s decision to omit the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a book its press is publishing:

Hill claims that, without these photos, free exchange of ideas is compromised. Here I agree with him. Yet he assumes that because the photos are omitted from this particular book, readers won’t have access to them at all. In fact, that the photos aren’t published in this particular book is no threat whatsoever to academic freedom as long as they are widely available from other sources. After reading his column, it took me about 45 seconds to find the cartoons on Wikipedia, and only because I misspelled the word “cartoons.”

I’m confident that when Yale decided to omit these photos, one factor in their decision was whether researchers and students could access the cartoons through other means without too much inconvenience. It’s hard to make the case that this omission stifles discussion when the omitted material is already easily available. I don’t know what it is that disgusts so many people about this decision, but to say that it inhibits the free exchange of ideas is blatantly dishonest.

I wish Hill and others would be forthcoming about what really upsets them, rather than pretending this decision somehow interferes with academic freedom. For all the fuss being made about academic freedom (while at Yale, I never met someone who correctly understood that term), it’s the most rank kind of hypocrisy to disguise one’s motives while advocating for open, honest, rigorous discussion.

Michael Wayne Harris
Moultrie, Ga.
Sept. 1
The writer is a 2009 graduate of Branford College.


  • Another Dane

    *mob-grin on*

    You are a good kid. As long as you don’t publish those cartoons you will be just fine.

    *mob-grin off*

    /sarcasm off

  • Hieronymus

    “I wish Hill and others would be forthcoming about what really upsets them…”

    I with the author would be forthcoming about exactly what he means; otherwise, I am left to speculate…

    Exactly what DOES the author think “Hill and others” meant?

  • Anonymous

    Hill and “others” believe in an antiquated thing called principle. They were foolish enough to believe that our esteemed university and it’s peers would practice what they preached. Forgive them, they’re mere amateurs; only academics can safely extol the virtues of one action, do something completely different, and remain intelligent people in their community’s eyes.

  • Helen of Troy

    Mr. Harris is right: the only conceivable reason why one could oppose yielding to the threat of Islamic terrorism is a hateful bigotry against Muslims.

  • Michael Wayne Harris

    I wasn’t agreeing with Yale’s position to exclude the cartoons. I have no opinion. I only said the decision in no way hampers free exchange of ideas. Had Yale Press opted not to publish the book for fears the opinions would cause controversies, they would be guilty of violating academic freedom. I completely agree that no topic should be off limits to debate, but refusing to publish an opinion and refusing to publish a cartoon that’s already been widely published are two very different things. Hill treats them equally.

    Instead of judging Yale’s decision absolutely, I more modestly claim that the decision will not have negative consequences specifically with regard to the free flow of ideas. The decision might be criticized on other grounds; I have no opinion. Hill (and alumni including Ambassador John Bolton) have criticized the decision for academic reasons; I’m saying that those academic reasons don’t hold up.

    @ Hieronymus, I have been clear about what I mean. I mean that there aren’t academic reasons for criticism. Hill thinks there are. When you ask what do I think “Hill and others meant,” I don’t know. That’s why, in my letter, I wrote, “I don’t know.”

    It would be unreasonable to require me to expand the conversation beyond the limits Hill set, and I’m not qualified to do so. But it’s obvious that there’s something lurking below the surface of Hill’s column, and rather than playing armchair shrink, I’ll let him speak for himself.

    @ #3
    I believe in principle, too. It could very well be that Yale is violating a principle that they espouse. The only principles that have been put on the table so far are academic principles, and those clearly aren’t being violated: this decision does nothing to inhibit the exchange of ideas.

    I’m open to the possibility that principle is being violated, I’m only asking for a satisfying answer of what that principle is, and I’m asking why, instead of discussing the real principle being violated, this red herring was pushed. I’m not saying Yale is innocent, but if they are guilty, it’s about something other than violating academic freedom. For all of your soapboxing about principles being violated, you have to, you know, identify a principle and explain how Yale is shortchanging it. No critic I’ve read has done this fairly.

    @ #4,
    I never said anything about Islamic terrorism or hateful bigotry against Muslims. My claims have nothing to do with either of those topics. Please do not associate me with topics I do not discuss. I only wish to discuss a particular set of potential consequences, not the causes behind them.

    I’m not opposed to criticizing Yale’s decision in general, but I am opposed to this criticism in particular. I don’t know if this was the right decision, but if it’s the wrong decision, it would be wrong because of some yet-to-be-identified principle, not academic freedom.

    I hope this clarifies any misunderstandings or confusions.

  • walter77777

    Oy gevalt! By publishing a book about the cartoons which may have offended Muslims without putting in the cartoons themselves the Press has capitulated to the threats of violence coming from Muslim extremists (Y’makh sh’mom v’zikrom!)*, and in this pusilanimous act has pointed out that threats of violence can successfully inhibit academic freedom.

    I have read several books about nazi propaganda, and they ahve included many pictures which made me want to vomit, but the writers were not inhibitted about including them even though they might be found elsewhere.

    Shame on Yale University Press!


    *Blot out their names and memories! — Hebrew curse.

  • free speech 09

    How’s this for a definition of Academic Freedom, Michael?

    From the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale, published in January 1975:

    “We take a chance, as the First Amendment takes a chance, when we commit ourselves to the idea that the results of free expression are to the general benefit in the long run, however unpleasant they may appear at the time. The validity of such a belief cannot be demonstrated conclusively. It is a belief of recent historical development, even within universities, one embodied in American constitutional doctrine but not widely shared outside the academic world, and denied in theory and in practice by much of the world most of the time.

    Because few other institutions in our society have the same central function, few assign such high priority to freedom of expression. Few are expected to. Because no other kind of institution combines the discovery and dissemination of basic knowledge with teaching, none confronts quite the same problems as a university.

    I recommend you read it in full. It may help you overcome your confusion.

  • Michael Wayne Harris

    @ free speech 09

    The Woodward Report is a horribly incoherent and poorly argument. I know the definition you cite well… I’ve actually written about its inadequacies on the YDN’s opinion pages. (Thanks for assuming I hadn’t read it, btw. Good job doing your research.) It’s a horribly confused document. The fact that a University is taking its cues from the Constitution is absurd precisely because Universities do not have the same function as federal governments.

    Furthermore, if you look at the history of First Amendment jurisprudence, you’ll detect a strain that is highly suspect of the idea that free speech is of the general benefit in the long run (Oliver Wendell Holmes believed, regarding the First Amendment, that if the country wanted to go to hell in a hand-basket, it was his job to help them).

    Freedom of Speech =/= Academic Freedom.

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