The visit of the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard last week raises important and difficult questions about how best to maintain a community that is welcoming and respectful of individuals from diverse groups but at the same time allows a free exchange of ideas and vigorous exploration of differences of opinion. We greatly respect our colleague, Branford College Master Steven Smith, and agree with him on many issues, but we disagree with his decision to host the visit of Westergaard.
Fundamentally, we do not believe that the central issue is one of free speech. No one prevented Westergaard from speaking, and no one was prohibited from inviting him. (Nor do we think that anyone should have been prohibited from inviting him.) Instead, we think the issue is what value — if any — there is in inviting someone to speak whose work, intentionally or not, incites intolerance. As masters, we have very broad discretion as to our speaker choices. That does not mean, however, that we should invite someone whose main claim to fame is cartoons that provoked hatred. Westergaard’s cartoon depicts the prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban; to many, this image implies that terrorism is a central tenet in Islam. In our view, there is no meaningful difference between his cartoon and one caricaturing Jews, African-Americans or women.
The purpose of Masters’ Teas and other public talks at Yale is to enhance a broad conception of the University’s cultural and educational mission.
Westergaard makes an important case for his freedom to speak and his newspaper’s right to print his cartoons. We agree; these are foundational democratic principles that Yale should promote both within and outside its walls. Westergaard has also emphasized that his cartoon is directed at the fundamentalist strand of Islam that connects terrorism to Muhammad’s teachings, rather than at the religion as a whole. Nevertheless, we think the educational value of having Westergaard speak on campus was significantly outweighed by the risk of harm to our community. In our view, the fact that his political cartoons appear to target an especially vulnerable group among us, and one that has only recently and tentatively begun to feel that it has equal standing within our community, is a decisive reason against inviting him.
Freedom of speech does not mandate that a highly regarded educational institution provide a platform for a visitor whose work incites intolerance.
Richard Schottenfeld is the master of Davenport College. Tanina Rostain is associate master of Davenport College.