Thursday, March 30, 2006

Reconciling NYU and Borders

A commenter to my previous post asked me to reconcile my condemnation of NYU with my understanding of Borders’ position. Here are my thoughts contrasting the two situations:

First, and most importantly, NYU, and universities in general, are institutions which constantly claim to champion the ideas of academic freedom and freedom of speech (see for instance the disgusting Ward Churchill affair). Indeed allowing a free exchange of ideas is the principal raison-d’etre for such institutions. Thus asking them to allow the expression of all views is really only asking them to be consistent in the application of their professed ideals and founding principles.

Moreover, as Eugene Volokh points out, NYU’s policies include this guideline:
A. Commitment and Responsibilities of the University. New York University is committed to maintaining an environment where open, vigorous debate and speech can occur. This commitment entails encouraging and assisting University organizations that want to sponsor speakers as well as informing members of the University community who seek guidance concerning forms of protest against speakers. It may also involve paying for extraordinary security measures in connection with a controversial speaker. Consistent with these obligations, the University promulgates these Guidelines, which are intended to be applied without regard to the content of any proposed speaker’s speech.
This clearly shows that part of NYU’s charter is to hold such events provided only that someone on campus is involved (in this case the NYU Objectivist club). Obviously NYU failed miserably in living up to its own guiding principles. In contrast, two similar events which I attended here in SoCal were held under the same general types of university guidelines, and both UCI and UCLA went to great lengths to protect freedom of speech on campus, including bringing in many extra security people. Thus there definitely is precedent for such campus events and it is not unreasonable to hold NYU to the same standard as UCI or UCLA.

On the other hand, it is not a guideline of Borders or any other corporation to engage in these kinds of activities; it depends on the stockholders, managers, and even employees to decide what is reasonable and what is too burdensome, since they can’t solicit more funds to beef up security nor is their primary focus encouraging the exchange of ideas, but rather engaging in a profitable business. (Not to mention that logistically it’s a much different task to protect one “controversial” event lasting 3 hours, than it is to protect every bookstore in a continent-wide chain, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for an indefinite duration).

Secondly, as I understand it, NYU had fully committed to a public event and only when Muslims challenged it (with the threat of violence as the undertone) did NYU cave-in and change the rules. As I said in a previous post, it would have been more understandable if NYU had simply said from the outset: “Freedom of Speech doesn’t apply on this campus” rather than to allow the event to be organized and advertised; to have people make plans around it; and then at the last minute to pull the rug out from under everyone. If, from the outset, they made a statement such as the Phoenix did, in which it was clear that Muslim threats of violence had succeeded in eradicating free speech, I don’t think you could criticize them as harshly (though they would still be acting in violation to their own guidelines). Also, I don’t think that NYU can claim that it didn’t understand what it was committing to originally, since as far as I can tell the event was always: A Public Unveiling of the Cartoons followed by a discussion of the issues involved. If NYU officials weren’t prepared for this to happen, they should never have committed to it in the first place.

Thirdly, unlike the Borders situation, everyone who would potentially have been at risk for exercising their freedom of speech by participating in the NYU event was doing so knowingly and voluntarily, i.e. the panelists and spectators correspond to the courageous individuals whom I discuss in the third paragraph of my original post.

So clearly NYU is culpable of cowardice and hypocrisy -- and of appeasing and abetting the Islamists who seek to eradicate our freedoms –- all of which I point out in my letter to NYU.

But for those who still think Borders et al. are culpable, please remember that: the Danish cartoonists are still in hiding while those who place bounties on their heads are out in public (and surrounded by adulating mobs); Ayaan Hirsi Ali has to be guarded 24 hours a day, and is often moved to army barracks just to be kept safe; Theo Van Gogh is dead; Iran has very recently reconfirmed the Rushdie fatwa against all those who are involved in publishing his book, etc. etc. Yet no Western government takes the steps necessary to remove those threats. How can you fault Borders for acknowledging that fact and acting accordingly?


Anonymous Daniel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful reply. If I had to argue NYU's case, I would say that showing the cartoons was not part of the intellectual content of this event and that the actual discussion was not interfered with. I think they would be wrong, though, for the same reason that it would be wrong to demand that an art history professor teach without showing slides of paintings. In general, source material IS part of the intellectual content of a presentation.

8:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agreed with your analysis and then I read this at Bidinotto's blog:

If you read all his updates and his comments, he makes a pretty good case that this is more like Yahoo or Google in China than the Phoenix case.

G. Davis

8:42 PM  
Blogger Amit Ghate said...

Daniel, the event was the Unveiling of the Cartoons, I don't see how that could be done without unveiling the cartoons. For reference see:

8:53 PM  
Anonymous Bill said...

"Daniel, the event was the Unveiling of the Cartoons, I don't see how that could be done without unveiling the cartoons"

Au contraire. By not unveiling the cartoons the NYU administration indeed unveiled the cartoon of selective moral cowardice. Perhaps they should have *unveiled* anti-Christian or anti-Jewish art that NYU has exhibited in the past. Then not only would their cowardice be caricatured by the blank easels, but their hypocrisy from the NYU sanctioned "heresies" of which they approve.

8:08 AM  

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