News’ View: Offensive speech should still be heard

Forty-six years ago, the Yale administration asked the Yale Political Union to withdraw its invitation to campus to a politician who had become the leading national figure in favor of segregationist policies, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama.

The YPU complied, though students and faculty members reacted largely negatively to Yale’s request. “This kind of action simply does not belong in this great academic community,” the News wrote in this space at the time. “The pressures of time must not dull our allegiance to such a basic duty of a free University.”

This basic duty — encouraging a realm of intellectual freedom without bounds — is being tested today as the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who drew one of the 12 cartoons that provoked outrage among Muslims four years ago, visits campus to speak at a Branford College Master’s Tea. Some students have said they will protest his appearance, and the Muslim Students Association said its members are “deeply hurt and offended” by Westergaard’s invitation.

“As an institution purportedly committed to making our campus an educational environment where all students feel equally comfortable, we feel that by hosting [him] Yale is undermining its commitment to creating a nurturing learning environment by failing to recognize the religious and racial sensitivity of the issue,” the group said.

It is understandable why Muslim students are upset at Westergaard’s visit, given the insensitivity of his cartoon. But suggesting the University revoke his invitation to speak here runs counter to a bedrock value of an academic community such as this one: that speech with which we disagree should be countered by more speech, rather than be forbidden in the first place.

The Wallace incident is instructive: His views would most definitely have prompted discomfort, but their airing would have added a substantial and valuable — if flagrantly disagreeable — perspective to the campus discourse on a leading debate of the era.

The same can be said for Westergaard. His point of view, though obviously unpopular in the Muslim community and elsewhere, adds to what is one of the paramount discussions of our time, one especially relevant to the post-Sept. 11 generation to which we belong.

The Wallace episode was one of several cited in the Woodward Report, the seminal 1975 document that laid out Yale’s policies on free expression. Prefacing the report was this quotation from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

Whether we will leave today hating Westergaard’s viewpoints remains to be seen. In an interview last year with Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper, he said his cartoon “must not be used against Muslim society as a whole.”

“That was not my intention,” he said. Rather, he described his cartoon as “aiming at fanatic Islamist terrorists.”

Regarding his intentions, Westergaard should be pressed today by members of our community. That is, after all, what we do at a university: challenge ideas and grow our own in the process.

Even — and especially — if they make us uncomfortable.

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