After last week’s terror attack against the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Yale students, faculty and experts have revisited Yale University Press’ controversial 2009 decision to censor images of the Prophet Muhammad.
In 2009, Yale University Press faced criticism for its decision to redact images of the Prophet Muhammad — including a controversial 2005 Danish cartoon and other historical depictions of the figure — from Brandeis University Professor Jytte Klausen’s book, “The Cartoons That Shook the World.” The University defended the decision at the time, arguing that it had consulted with two dozen authorities that unanimously advised against the publication of the images. However, in light of last week’s attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Yale faculty, students and experts have raised new criticism of Yale University Press’s 2009 decision and urged the University to modify its stance for the future.
“If the major educational institutions of the Western world cannot summon the courage to defend freedom of speech, who is going to do that?” said Executive Director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research Jonathan Brent, who was the YUP’s commissioning editor of the book at the time. “[Yale] was not behaving as a beacon of democratic culture or in a self-aware capacity as a protector of liberal values it teaches — it was acting rather as a corporation protecting its interests abroad and protecting its interests in the Arab world.”
Brent said he argued in favor of keeping the controversial images in the book, but the Press faced pressure from the administration, which feared that publishing the offensive images would incite anger and put the campus at risk. Although he conceded that universities have a commitment to protect their faculty and staff, Brent said the decision set a bad precedent and undermined the very values taught in Yale classrooms.
Klausen said the University was overly risk-averse in its decision, since there was no credible threat in printing the photographs. She published an article earlier this week in Time magazine condemning Yale’s 2009 decision and arguing that this type of censorship impedes the dissemination of knowledge.
“I am not in favor of provocation; I am an academic and not a free speech martyr,” Klausen told the News. “In the process of discussing the nature of image, it is of course important to know it is permissible in religious law to republish the offending image.”
However, it appears unlikely that recent events will lead to substantive change from the administration.
University spokesman Tom Conroy wrote in an email that there is no formal University policy on publishing controversial images or cartoons, nor has there been any cause to revisit the issue regarding Klausen’s book.
Still, questions regarding Yale’s censorship of sensitive content continue to surface. Not only have the attacks in Paris recast the debate, but some of the authorities consulted in 2009 have since publicly disavowed their decisions.
Most notably, former Yale Corporation member Fareed Zakaria ’86 wrote in a Washington Post column last month that he “deeply regretted” writing a statement in favor of the University’s decision to redact the images. He said he was swayed by concerns for the institution at the time, but said the correct decision — then and now — would be to affirm freedom of expression.
Although Klausen’s book was first published in 2009, she said Zakaria’s statements may influence whether the University will print the cartoons in a paperback edition of the book. Six years later, whether the YUP will reprint her book — let alone include the offending images — is not clear. Yale University Press director John Donatich did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
Students and professors on campus have come forward condemning the University’s decision and have argued that in light of the recent attacks, the stakes are even higher for Yale to act in a way that affirms freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
“Yale University Press should have published the Danish cartoons because they weren’t created at Yale and were already widely available,” political science lecturer Jim Sleeper wrote in an email. “YUP isn’t a provocative newspaper like Charlie Hebdo; nor is it a propaganda organ. It had a scholarly obligation to pursue truth with relevant evidence.”
Sleeper joins a multitude of other voices within academia arguing that Yale ought to change its stance on censoring sensitive content, especially in academic texts.
Religious scholar Reza Aslan, who withdrew a supportive blurb for the book in 2009 after Yale’s decision to censor the images, said universities have a role in distinguishing between free speech and hate speech.
However, Aslan said Yale’s decision was outside the boundaries of appropriate action for a university.
“I think the idea that we cannot print images … that are actually part of Islamic history, images that are drawn by Muslims themselves in an academic book about depictions of the prophet, because we are afraid of the Islamic response is gross Islamophobia,” he said. “This was an academic book primarily for an academic audience … and to not produce those images is intellectual cowardice, frankly.”
Still, some students came to the defense of the YUP’s decision to retract the sensitive images and argued that its decision was within its right as a press to choose which content to publish.
President of the Muslim Students Association Ahmad Aljobeh ’16, who said he was not speaking on behalf of the organization, said the application of the term “self-censorship” to the actions of the YUP is not entirely correct.
“If [YUP] decided that publishing them would be gratuitous then they have the right to make that decision,” Aljobeh said. “Some might refer to this as ‘self-censorship,’ but they’re forgetting that we have the moral prerogative to choose to not offend people, just as we have the right to free speech.”
French citizen Aube Rey Lescure ’15 drew the distinction between the 2009 incident and the cartoons at the center of the events unfolding in Paris. She said that as an academic institution, Yale cannot afford the amount of backlash the publication of sensitive material would create.
“Yale is not Charlie Hebdo. Charlie Hebdo prides itself for offending and pushing boundaries — it is both a bastion of insolence and an invaluable French institution,” Rey Lescure said.
Despite the recent backlash, it remains unclear how Yale will decide in future instances regarding the publication of sensitive material. However, some fear Yale’s decision fit into a larger trend of an unwillingness to offend on campus.
The University’s decision lowered the quality of scholarship and undermined the principle and practice of academic freedom, sociology professor Julia Adams said.
“At the time, I disagreed with the decision,” Adams said. “I still do, if anything more strongly.”
“Nous sommes tous Charlie,” she added. “We are all Charlie.”
Correction: Jan. 14
A previous version of this article omitted the words “to know” in a quote attributed to Jytte Klausen.