A group of prominent conservative alumni has joined the chorus of critics of Yale’s decision to remove caricatures of Muhammad from an upcoming book about the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy.
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John Bolton ’70 LAW ’74, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and a group of other graduates who call themselves the Yale Committee for a Free Press, is currently circulating a letter to the editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine that renounces the “shameful censorship.” The group is asking for other graduates to sign the letter and to call on the University to publish “The Cartoons that Shook the World” with the cartoons that shook the world intact.
But Jytte Klausen, the Brandeis University professor who wrote the book, said the effort is coming too late. The book, she said, is already being printed and will be published in a few weeks. The original schedule for publication would have made the book available in November.
Even still, Bolton said “the whole episode was an example of intellectual cowardice.”
“To publish a book on the controversy around the cartoons and not publish the cartoons is just mindboggling,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “If they were scared they should’ve just not published the book.”
Or, as David Frum ’82 GRD ’82, the former speechwriter to George W. Bush ’68, put it, Yale should have just reversed its decision.
“Every organization does things that in retrospect don’t look like good decisions,” said Frum, who signed the letter that was written by Michael Steinberg ’74, a lawyer. “When you haven’t made a good decision it is a sign of maturity and wisdom to reconsider.”
For his part, Steinberg, who is senior counsel at the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, said he was compelled to write the letter because he was shocked that his alma mater, “one of the leading universities in the world, would be the first to take the step of censoring a book in order to appease potential extremists around the world in the absence of any threat.”
Bolton put things more bluntly: “The fascists have won.”
Klausen added that the experts Yale consulted with about the matter would have had little experience in predicting when a terrorist attack would occur.
But Bolton, speaking by phone, had an entirely different point of view. Instead of consulting with diplomatic experts, he said, Yale should have just called the police.
“If Yale had a concern about somebody behaving illegitimately they should go to the local law enforcement and say we’re worried and we think we need protection,” he said. “That’s why you have police forces; presumably that’s why Yale has a security force.”
Yale officials, of course, see the matter differently. While John Donatich, the director of the Yale University Press, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, University President Richard Levin said in a recent interview that the University acted prudently and was faced with a “situation where two important values come into conflict.”
“The decision that was made was a reasonable one and the right one,” Levin said. “It was not an easy call.”
Steinberg said the call could have been easier for Yale if it had just stayed true to its mission as an educational institution. He said he cannot think of another instance in which a university press censored a publication because it feared a potential terrorist attack.
“As far as I know this is entirely unique,” Steinberg said. “That the campus of Nathan Hale should be the place where censorship in America begins is just horrifying.”
Correction, Sept. 4, 2009: The story “Cartoon controversy escalates” was imprecise in its characterization of the membership of the Yale Committee for a Free Press, a group of alumni who are criticizing Yale’s decision to remove caricatures of Muhammad from an upcoming book about the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy. While several prominent conservative alumni are among the group’s members, the group itself is nonpartisan.