French massacre prompts criticism of 2009 Yale episode

The recent terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper that had published images of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, has prompted renewed criticism of Yale University Press’s controversial decision to redact similar cartoons from a scholarly book published in 2009.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

That book, The Cartoons That Shook the World, focused on a global crisis that had erupted four years earlier over the publication of 12 caricatures of Muhammad by a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. The Yale press cited fears of inciting violence in removing the cartoons and all other illustrations, including recent and historical images of the Muslim prophet, from the book before publishing it.

The decision was widely criticised by the American Association of University Professors and other academic and free-speech advocacy groups, several of which cited it as part of a troubling trend in which colleges were surrendering the free exchange of ideas in response to threats.

In some respects, last week’s attacks in France, in which Islamist gunmen killed 12 people at Charlie Hebdo’s offices and five other people elsewhere, appeared to confirm that Yale University Press’s fears might have had some basis.

But in an article published on Tuesday in the Yale Daily News, a student newspaper, and in op-eds printed elsewhere, people close to the Yale press’s decision and other scholars have cited the killings in France as reason to argue that the university press should have included cartoons in the book to take a stand in support of academic freedom and free speech.

Among those who have taken such a position is Fareed R Zakaria, the pundit and CNN host who, back then, in his former capacity as a Yale trustee, issued a statement saying he had advised the press not to publish the cartoons. On Wednesday he stood by a December column in The Washington Post in which he expressed regret for his 2009 stand, arguing, "The right response then and now must be to affirm freedom of expression."

In an email, Zakaria, a 1986 Yale graduate, added, however, that "it’s a very difficult decision for any institution that has to worry about the dangers to its people", and that he has "enormous respect and sympathy" for those making such calls.

Although his recent Washington Post column described the decision as "one I would not have made" and said he had agreed to defend the decision out of concern for Yale and respect for administrators there, the statement that he issued at the time said he was relieved that the Yale press had heeded his counsel not to publish the cartoons.

'Imagined' danger

John E Donatich, who was director of the Yale press at the time and who remains in that position, did not return calls seeking comment on Wednesday. Thomas Conroy, a Yale spokesman, said the university had "not had cause since 2009 to revisit the issue of Professor Klausen’s book" and the Yale press "does not have any contractual obligation to print a paperback version of the book", which is available digitally.

The book’s author, Jytte Klausen, a professor of politics at Brandeis University, has revisited the episode and condemned the Yale press’s decision in a Yale Daily News interview. In a January 7 Time magazine op-ed Klausen argued that the Yale press had censored her book in response to 'imagined' danger.

"There were no known threats against the press or against myself at the time, and there never have been any," her Time article argued.

Jonathan Brent, who was Yale University Press’s editorial director and the book’s commissioning editor, opposed redacting the cartoons at the time. He said on Wednesday, "The lesson it taught by caving in cannot be undone or papered over by all the volumes" in Yale’s main library.

"If the major educational institutions of the Western world cannot summon the courage to defend freedom of speech, who will?" asked Brent, who is now executive director of the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research in New York. He said he suspected the Yale press had acted to protect its corporate interests rather than in response to any real danger.

The Danish newspaper’s 2005 publication of the Muhammad cartoons led to protests around the world and to plots of violence against the newspaper and its employees.

Brenna McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the Association of American University Presses, said this week that her organisation knew of no other university presses that had grappled with whether to publish images of Muhammad after the Yale controversy.

But Paul M Sniderman, a professor of political science at Stanford University, said he and his three Danish co-authors had made a conscious decision to leave the cartoons out of their 2014 book on the Danes’ response to the Jyllands-Posten episode, which they titled Paradoxes of Liberal Democracy: Islam, Western Europe, and the Danish Cartoon Crisis (Princeton University Press).

Sniderman said his co-authors, all professors at Aarhus University, in the same city as the newspaper, each "feared for the safety of their family," especially given that "they live right at ground zero". He added, however, that he and his co-authors had also decided that the cartoons were not needed to illustrate the social-science research that was the book’s basis. "The effect of including cartoons," he said, "would be to make their inclusion the focal point."

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labour, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com