Sixteen organizations will accuse Yale today of failing to stand up for free speech with its decision not to print satirical images of the prophet Muhammad in a book published by Yale University Press last September.
The organizations, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the International Publishers Association, appear as signatories on a statement that will be sent to Yale, chastising the University for not printing Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard’s controversial cartoons. The statement, written by National Coalition against Censorship Executive Director Joan Bertin, argues that by capitulating to threats of violence, Yale has fed a climate in which people will be afraid to speak and publish freely. Yale’s decision drew widespread criticism and debate from professors, students and alumni in the past three months.
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“The situation is extremely disturbing because Yale is a very prominent university, and their doing something like this might justify other institutions doing so,” Bertin said. “This action compromised the book, the press and an important principle: not only should academics be able to discuss these things among themselves, but in this country we’re entitled to talk about and view the images.”
The statement is the latest development in a controversy that began last August, when the Press announced it would print Brandeis University professor Jytte Klausen’s book, “The Cartoons that Shook the World,” without the cartoons that incited violent riots when they were first published in a Danish newspaper in 2005.
“Yale and Yale University Press are deeply committed to freedom of speech and expression, so the issues raised here were difficult,” the Yale University Press said in a statement in August. “The decision rested solely on the experts’ assessments that there existed a substantial likelihood of violence that might take the lives of innocent victims.”
A representative of the Press declined to comment further on the issue earlier this month.
When Bertin sent a letter to University and Press officials earlier this month to notify them in advance about the statement released today, University administrators responded by posting a copy of the August statement on Bertin’s blog.
Although some of the signatories of Bertin’s statement have expressed skepticism that reprinting the cartoons in a scholarly book would actually cause bloodshed, Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer said two weeks ago that there is evidence the cartoons are still inflammatory. She pointed to an October incident in Chicago, in which two men were arrested for plotting to kill Flemming Rose, an editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which printed the cartoons in 2005.
Today’s statement, which Bertin co-authored with Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, appeared in print earlier this fall. Bertin and Nelson gave Duke University professor Gary Hull, another signatory, permission to use their statement in his book “Muhammad: The ‘Banned’ Images,” released two weeks ago. The book reprints the images stripped from Klausen’s.
“In my view and the view of the other signatories, what Yale did was really cowardly,” Hull said earlier this month. “There are a lot of smart people at Yale. They should know that for them to cave to what I regard as barbarian behavior leads to nothing but emboldening barbarism and a further erosion of free speech.”
The statement already had more than a dozen signatories — among them Rose, University of California, Los Angeles law professor and first amendment expert Eugene Volokh and Sarah Ruden, a professor at the Yale Divinity School — when Hull published it in his book. Bertin spent several months recruiting additional signatories before sending the statement to Yale.