Colleges Are Urged to Defend Free Speech Against Threats of Violence

November 30, 2009

Citing Yale University Press's recent decision to remove all images of Muhammad from a scholarly book in response to fears their publication would trigger violence, a long list of academic and free-speech groups today called on colleges and universities "to exercise moral and intellectual leadership" and stand up for free expression.

A joint statement issued by the groups, which include the American Association of University Professors and the College Art Association, characterizes Yale's decision as one of several recent developments that "suggest that our longstanding commitment to the free exchange of ideas is in peril of falling victim to a spreading fear of violence."

Among other incidents the statement cites are a 2005 decision by Hamilton College, in New York, to cancel a speech by Ward Churchill, then a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, in response to threats of violence, and a decision last year by the San Francisco Art Institute to close a controversial video exhibition in response to threats of violence by animal-rights activists.

"The failure to stand up for free expression emboldens those who would attack and undermine it," the statement says. It calls on higher-education institutions "to stand up for certain basic principles: that the free exchange of ideas is essential to liberal democracy; that each person is entitled to hold and express his or her own views without fear of bodily harm; and that the suppression of ideas is a form of repression used by authoritarian regimes around the world to control and dehumanize their citizens and squelch opposition."

Among the other organizations that signed the statement is the National Coalition Against Censorship, an alliance of 50 national organizations that previously had joined other groups in sending Yale officials a letter protesting the university's decision to remove the cartoons from the book The Cartoons That Shook the World, by Jytte Klausen. Other signatories to the statement include the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the International Publishers Association, the Modern Language Association, and both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.