Cartoon Violence

I was hoping to be among the first in the blogosphere to address this, but got distracted with work and was beaten to the punch by the Volokh Conspiracy, amongst others:

This morning NPR ran a story on Yale University’s decision to force the Yale University Press to remove all depictions of the prophet Muhammed, including several controversial Danish cartoons, from Jytte Klausen’s book The Cartoons that Shook the World.  As had already been reported, the University’s decision was based, in part, on various outside experts on national security, terrorism, and Islam who beleived republication of the cartoons could spark further violence.  What I had not previously known, but NPR reported today, is that the experts consulted by Yale University were not asked to read the book, only to comment on the cartoons.

The author of the book was, understandably, upset about this:

The university told Yale Press to eliminate the cartoons from the book, along with all other images of Muhammad. And Klausen was told she’d have to sign a nondisclosure agreement if she wanted to read the experts’ comments. She declined to do so. But she says she was even more dismayed to learn that the panel had not read her book.

She noticed some eerily similar patterns to the incident that the book chronicles:

“My first reaction was that it was stunningly similar to what happened during the conflict itself,” said Klausen. “I disagreed with the experts’ advice. I felt that had the experts read my book, they would not have given the advice they produced.”

Ultimately, however, I think she capitulated due to two things: money and academic prestige:

Even so, Klausen decided to publish with Yale Press.

There are a few things that are interesting about this story.  To begin with,

Jonathan Alder over at the Volokh Conspiracy is already taking flak for this, but I’m inclined to agree with him:

So we are clear: A prominent University censored content from a book based on the opinions of experts who had not read the book in question.

The idea that some published material may offend some people is nothing new.  In fact, it has likely been the case since the inception of publishing itself.  Whether those offended will resort to violence is simply beyond the scope of the publisher.  Especially in an academic context, I fault Yale University for:

  1. Requesting “experts” to comments on the likelihood of the publication of the cartoons inciting further violence, without the context of the book (within which they would have been published).
  2. Caving to said “expert” opinions and not publishing the pictures.
  3. Setting such a precedent.

I hope that this does not result in a quick dissent down the slippery slope of restrictions on academic freedom, though it is of serious concern here.  Restrictions because of fear of offense is not a reason, in this country, to censor a publication (much less self-censor).

I would have liked to see Ms. Klausen choose to not only refuse to sign the Non-Disclosure Agreements (which she did) but to return her advance and publish the book (cartoons included) with another press.

I don’t think there will be much direct fallout from this issue, but I am almost certain that other academics and University Presses across the country will point to this example many times over when facing a difficult decision.

You can download the whole (5 min. 18 sec.) NPR store here.

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