posted by Linda Downs
This past spring the National Coalition Against Censorship worked with the Modern Language Association and CAA to produce an online survey of their members regarding trigger warnings and the pressures on instructors. While the survey was not scientific, the over eight hundred responses received offer a bird’s eye view of the debate. Here are some responses to the survey results:
Catherine Rampell, “Young Fogies: Modern Illiberalism Is Led by Students,” Washington Post, November 30, 2015.
Colleen Flaherty, “Trigger Warning Skepticism,” Inside Higher Ed, December 2, 2015.
Robby Soave, “How Trigger Warnings Protect Religious Dogma in the Classroom,” Reason, December 1, 2015.
Tyler Kingkade, “The Prevailing Narrative on Trigger Warnings Is Just Plain Wrong,” Huffington Post, December 1, 2015.
Benjamin Wermund, “Do ‘Trigger Warnings’ Harm Academic Freedom? Most Educators Think So,” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 1, 2015.
College Fix Staff, “Three in Five Professors Say Trigger Warnings Pose a Threat to Academic Freedom,” College Fix, December 1, 2015.
Leah Libresco, “Most Professors Fear, But Don’t Face, Trigger Warnings,” Five Thirty Eight, December 10, 2015.
Jesse Singal, “Is There Any Evidence Trigger Warnings Are Actually a Big Deal?,” Science of Us, December 6, 2015.
posted by Linda Downs
Survey reveals a complex picture: threats to academic freedom are not just about “political correctness.”
If the headlines are correct, college students everywhere are demanding professors provide so-called “trigger warnings” to flag material that might make them feel uncomfortable, and in some cases to allow students to avoid the material. If this is happening widely, the free speech implications are enormous: A broad range of works, from a documentary about sexual assault to an historical account of slavery, could be considered “triggering,” along with the possibility that many professors would steer clear of potentially controversial work.
But how prevalent are these demands? Is a resurgent tide of political correctness threatening higher education, or are the media jumping to conclusions?
To shed some light, NCAC worked with the Modern Language Association and the College Art Association this spring on an online survey of their members. While the survey is not scientific, the over 800 responses we received offer a birds’ eye view of the debate over trigger warnings, and the pressures on instructors.
The survey finds that formal university trigger policies are extremely rare: Less than one percent of respondents say their schools have them. But there is abundant anecdotal evidence suggesting that something is going on. It appears to be a bottom-up phenomenon: Students make complaints to individual professors or administrators, and instructors—many of whom are reasonably nervous about job security. As one survey respondent put it, “After teaching a course for the first time, a student complained in the anonymous evaluation. Ever since, I verbally include a trigger warning at the start of each semester.”
Fifteen percent of respondents reported that students had requested trigger warnings in their courses, while over half reported that they had voluntarily provided warnings for course materials, with 23 percent saying they have offered them “several times” or “regularly.”
So who is doing the complaining? In much of the media commentary, the focus is on left-leaning students using trigger warnings to chill speech they find offensive. One widely-read essay on the subject was titled, “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me.” While this is certainly happening, and many respondents reported sensitivities to content depicting rape and sexual assault, the survey paints a more complex picture. Contrary to conventional thinking, warnings are sought by both conservative and liberal students. “I used trigger warnings to warn about foul or sexual language, sexual content, or violence in order to allow our very conservative students to feel more in control of the material,” wrote one instructor. Another teacher was aware of “religious objections to nude models in studio courses” and “homoerotic content in art history.” Another teacher noted the use of trigger warnings “because some students were upset by the realization that certain artists were homosexuals.”
Another common theme is that it is impossible “to be able to predict which topics will be problematic for students, or will ‘trigger’ a response.” “I’ve had students want pretty detailed and specific trigger warnings for, well, everything…,” including violent imagery in a horror film class. Reported complaints concern spiders, indigenous artifacts, “fatphobia,” and more.
Many respondents draw a distinction between “trigger warnings” and course or content descriptions. The latter are widely accepted as ways to convey information about the scope, substance and requirements of a given course. As many instructors have pointed out, offering students information about course materials does not necessarily flag content as disturbing or offensive, or offer students an opportunity to avoid it, but simply provides an explanation about what material will be taught.
The strongest findings in the survey are that instructors believe that trigger warnings, if widely used, would threaten academic freedom and inquiry. Nearly half of respondents (45 percent) think trigger warnings have or will have a negative effect on classroom dynamics; on the broader question of academic freedom, 62 percent see a possible negative effect.
Those who oppose warnings say they reinforce taboos, infantilize students, “tend to impede conversation,” “stifle meaningful discussion,” and send a message to students “about what it’s ok for them to get upset about.” In contrast, supporters say they build trust and “create a positive classroom environment,” show respect for the “individual needs of students,” create “a positive and safe space for dialogue,” prepare students “to engage with the material in meaningful ways,” and prevent them from feeling “blindsided.”
The survey revealed that many instructors are deeply concerned about their students’ wellbeing, and how best to fulfill the mission of higher education. And the demand for trigger warnings may reflect a desire by students to be more engaged in their education and their communities, which has positive aspects. However, the trick is to ensure that such an interest is not expressed in ways that preclude discussion, debate, and even disagreement.
Reprinted from Censorship News, No. 123 (Fall 2015), National Coalition Against Censorship www.ncac.org.
posted by Christopher Howard
This week CAA filed an amicus brief in the case of Golan v. Holder, which the United States Supreme Court will likely hear later this year. The issue raised in Golan v. Holder is whether Congress could, consistent with the First Amendment, remove certain foreign works from the public domain and bring them back into copyright after enacting the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA) of 1994. A lower court, the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, held that the URAA was constitutional. When the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, Jeffrey P. Cunard, CAA’s counsel, was asked if CAA would join several like-minded organizations and individuals in signing onto a brief that would support the importance of the public domain.
The Executive Committee of the CAA Board of Directors considered the importance of the public domain (works no longer in copyright) as a wellspring of resources for artists, scholars, and other creators while discussing the detrimental effect of removing works from the public domain. The committee also noted that a filing by CAA in Golan v. Holder would be consistent with the organization’s filing of an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case of Eldred v. Ashcroft. In that 2003 decision, the court determined that Congress did not violate the First Amendment when it extended the term of copyright through the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. After reviewing drafts of the current brief, the Executive Committee authorized the filing of the Golan v. Holder brief on June 20, 2011.
To learn more about Golan v. Holder and the issues at stake, please review the following articles, published online in March and April 2011:
- Lyle Denniston, “A Major Test of Copyright Power,” SCOTUSblog, March 7, 2011
- Edward Lee, “Golan v. Holder: Supreme Court to Review Copyrighting Works in Public Domain,” Huffington Post, March 9, 2011
- Shannon Mo, “Cert. Granted in Golan v. Holder,” Re:Marks, April 1, 2011
The principal author of the brief, Jennifer Urban of the Samuelson Law, Technology, and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California’s School of Law in Berkeley, received assistance from Cunard and his firm, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP. Others signing onto the brief include individual writers, musicians, and scholars as well as other organizations. Cunard extends his thanks to Anne Collins Goodyear, curator at the National Portrait Gallery and CAA vice president for Annual Conference, for providing the excellent example of a visual artist, Marcel Duchamp, using a public-domain work, the Mona Lisa, to create a new one (pp. 14–15). The brief also cites other artists, from Pablo Picasso and Jasper Johns to Banksy and Shepard Fairey. In addition, Cunard has noted the extensive reference to CAA’s involvement in the orphan-works proceeding (pp. 33–35), which helps the brief support the proposition that the URAA’s copyright restoration of many foreign works had exacerbated the orphan-works problem.
CAA’s involvement in Golan v. Holder is the latest event in its long history of advocacy efforts regarding freedom of speech and copyright issues. On behalf of all CAA members, the board is grateful to Cunard, one of the nation’s leading experts in copyright law, for the work he has put into the brief and for his continued support of the organization.
posted by Christopher Howard
The National Coalition Against Censorship has edited video of “Policing the Sacred: Art, Censorship, and the Politics of Faith,” a session held during the 2011 CAA Annual Conference in New York, and posted it on YouTube in two parts. Links to the videos appear below.
In recent decades, the volatile relationships among art, politics, and religion have only intensified, as evident in the Culture Wars of the 1990s in the United States, the Danish cartoon uproar, and ongoing battles over artistic depictions of religious figures, including the recent removal of a David Wojnarowicz video from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. This panel, moderated by Eleanor Heartney, an art critic and the author of Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art, brought together five artists and advocates who discussed the above issues and more.
Participating were Richard Kamler, an artist and educator whose installation of intertwined pages from the Koran and the Torah incited controversy in New Haven in 2010; the Bulgarian video artist Boryana Rossa, who spoke on behalf of her husband, Oleg Mavromatti, currently wanted by Russian authorities for “inciting religious hatred” through a performance in which he had himself crucified; Iranian artists and filmmakers Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari, who recently completed Women without Men, a film that evokes the religious, social, and political tensions surrounding the 1953 coup that brought the Shah to power; and Svetlana Mintcheva, NCAC director of programs, who recently wrote “Hide/Seek: Museums, Ethics, and the Press: A Symposium Report” for CAA.
In addition, the artist Joy Garnett reviewed “Policing the Sacred” for CAA’s 2011 Annual Conference Blog.
Watch the Video
posted by Christopher Howard
Svetlana Mintcheva, director of programs at the National Coalition Against Censorship, reports on a recent meeting about the Hide/Seek controversy that was held at Rutgers University earlier this month. The first two paragraphs are below; you may also read the full article.
Hide/Seek: Museums, Ethics, and the Press
Hide/Seek may be remembered as the censorship controversy that launched a hundred discussion panels. There were public statements and street protests, of course, letters to the Smithsonian Board of Regents and articles in the press, but most of all, there were the conferences. Starting with a gathering at the Jewish Community Center in Washington, DC, spreading to the West Coast, and featuring major public events at the Corcoran and the New Museum, these discussions responded to an apparently endless desire to analyze and assign blame, to blow off steam and extract lessons, and to place what happened within the history of Culture Wars in America.
An April 9 symposium, “Hide/Seek: Museum, Ethics, and the Press,” organized by the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University and the Institute for Ethical Leadership at Rutgers Business School, had the goal of framing the issues surrounding the Hide/Seek controversy as ethical ones. Daniel Okrent, former chairman of the National Portrait Gallery, opened the event by posing several key questions: Is choosing to do a controversial show an ethical decision? Should a show ever be changed after opening? What happens after a controversy in terms of institutional definition and future planning? A diverse group of participants from such disciplines as art history, law, political science, and philosophy, as well as Smithsonian representatives and one journalist, attempted to grapple with these issues and more.
Read the full article in the Features section.
posted by Christopher Howard
The Executive Committee of the CAA Board of Directors adopted the following statement on December 7, 2010. At the bottom of the page is information about a special session at the upcoming CAA Annual Conference, chaired by Jonathan Katz, a scholar and the cocurator of Hide/Seek.
The College Art Association regrets the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly (1987) from the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, on display at the National Portrait Gallery. It was taken out on November 30 by G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in response to outside pressure. CAA further expresses profound disappointment that the House speaker–designate, John A. Boehner of Ohio, and the incoming majority leader, Eric Cantor of Virginia, have used their positions to question future funding for the Smithsonian Institution.
CAA applauds the National Portrait Gallery for its groundbreaking exhibition, which presents the long-suppressed subject of same-sex orientation. Furthermore, CAA commends the thorough, pioneering scholarship and the challenging curatorial judgment made by the organizers of Hide/Seek—David C. Ward, a historian at the museum, and Jonathan Katz, director of the Visual Studies Doctoral Program at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. That the work of everyone involved has been heedlessly compromised is deeply troubling. The pressure brought to bear on the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian sounds a familiar note from 1989, when direct federal funding to artists was ended due to political pressure. Then as now, CAA strongly protests such tactics.
Government has a long tradition of supporting universities, museums, and libraries—institutions that have produced research that expresses a variety of positions on all subjects. Freedom of expression is one of the great strengths of American democracy and one that our country holds up as a model for emerging democracies elsewhere. Americans understand that ideas expressed in books and artworks are those of their makers, not of the institutions that house them, and certainly do not represent public policy.
CAA urges all members to let your senators and representatives know of your support for the exhibition, its curators, and the National Portrait Gallery. You may also use advocacy tools provided by the National Humanities Alliance or Americans for the Arts.
Special Conference Session
This week CAA invited Jonathan Katz, cocurator of Hide/Seek, to chair a special Centennial session at the 2011 Annual Conference in New York. He will present “Against Acknowledgement: Sexuality and the Instrumentalization of Knowledge” on Wednesday, February 9, 2011, 9:30 AM–NOON in the Rendezvous Trianon Room at the Hilton New York. Please check the conference website soon for a list of panelists, their institutional affiliations, and topics of discussion.
posted by Christopher Howard
In the past week, numerous art and museum associations, advocacy groups, nonprofit and commercial galleries, art critics, and newspapers have spoken out against the removal of an artwork by David Wojnarowicz that was on view in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. CAA is compiling a list of organizations, companies, and people who have published official statements, editorials, and letters to the editor.
- College Art Association
- Association of Art Museum Directors (PDF)
- Transformer in Washington, DC, which is screening A Fire in My Belly
- Association of Art Museum Curators
- National Coalition Against Censorship (a joint statement with thirteen other groups, including the First Amendment Project, Catholics for Choice, the Association of American Publishers, and the International Association of Art Critics, United States Section)
- American Association of Museums
- American Civil Liberties Union
- Washington Project for the Arts
- Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts
Critics, Journalists, Scholars, and Curators
- Jonathan D. Katz, scholar and curator of Hide/Seek with David C. Ward
- Tyler Green, Modern Art Notes, who has an archive of events and commentary since November 30
- Lee Rosenbaum, CultureGrrl, who also has covered the story with news and editorials
- Blake Gopnik, the Washington Post
- Christopher Knight, the Los Angeles Times
Museums and Galleries
- PPOW Gallery in New York, which represents the Estate of David Wojnarowicz
- Arlington Arts Center in Virginia
Press and Publishing
Social Networking and Web Resources
The above list will be cumulative. If you would like to send CAA a link to an official or organizational statement, please write to Christopher Howard, CAA managing editor.
CAA Joins Amicus Brief Urging Supreme Court to Review Appellate Decision That Only “Great” Art Is Protected by the First Amendment
posted by Christopher Howard
CAA joined with artists and other arts-support organizations in filing an amicus brief asking the US Supreme Court to grant a petition to review a case involving an artwork removed from public view in San Marcos, Texas. In that case, Kleinman v. City of San Marcos, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the First Amendment only protects “great” works of art.
The brief explains how this new, “great” art standard is inconsistent with the First Amendment and would give governments the ability to ban disfavored art and contemporary art that has not yet become iconic. It points out that whether art is “great” art is not susceptible to an objective, value-neutral determination, but would require courts to act as art critics based on expert evidence of what constitutes “greatness” in art. The brief also highlights a number of examples of artists and art whose work was not initially regarded as “great,” but only became so over time. For all of these reasons, the brief argues, the new and unprecedented “great” art standard of the Fifth Circuit is troubling, and the Supreme Court should review and reverse the appellate decision.
In the city of San Marcos, Texas, participants at a charity event for the opening of a store, Planet K, were invited to smash up an old car. The car was then converted into a cactus planter and painted on the exterior by two local artists, with scenes from San Marcos, abstract designs, and the phrase “Make Love, Not War.” The stated intention of one of the petitioners, Michael Kleinman, organizer of the event and owner of the store, was always to turn the wrecked car into an artwork. The resulting artwork was displayed on private property (the Planet K parking lot) and was easily visible to the public from thoroughfares.
A San Marcos ordinance prohibits, as a public nuisance, any display of a “junked vehicle” that can been seen by the public. Based on the First Amendment—that their artwork is protected speech—Kleinman and the artists sued the city, to enjoin it from applying the ordinance to their artwork. The US District Court for the Western District of Texas found for the city. The court held that the ordinance did not violate the First Amendment, as applied to plaintiffs’ artwork, because they had alternative avenues of communicating their message.
This past February, the Fifth Circuit affirmed that decision. It first questioned whether the wrecked car/planter/artwork could be considered constitutionally protected expression. In particular, the appeals court read a prior Supreme Court decision to indicate that the First Amendment protects only “great” works of art, and that the Supreme Court has not otherwise set out the First Amendment framework to be applied to visual works of art. The Fifth Circuit also went on to hold that even if the First Amendment did apply in this case, under prevailing standards the city’s nuisance law could apply to the artwork. After the decision of the Fifth Circuit, the city seized and removed—but has not yet destroyed—the artwork.
The artists filed a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court, requesting that the court review the decision of the Fifth Circuit. There are several grounds for the petition, one of which is that “great art” should not be the test for whether an artwork is protected by the First Amendment.
First Amendment protection for works of art has long been a core concern of CAA and important to its advocacy program. In the last Supreme Court term, CAA joined the National Coalition Against Censorship in filing an amicus brief in the case of United States v. Stevens. In that case, the Supreme Court ultimately held, 8–0, that the federal statute criminalizing depictions of animal cruelty violated the First Amendment, agreeing with the position taken by CAA in its brief. Earlier, CAA joined an amicus brief in the NEA Four case (National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley), in which the Supreme Court ultimately held, in 1998, that it was not unconstitutional for Congress to mandate that the National Endowment for the Arts take into account “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public” when funding artists.
Other Signers to the Brief
The amicus brief to which CAA is a party was filed on July 8, 2010. The other signers are: Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts; Volunteer Lawyers and Professionals for the Arts (formerly Tennessee Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts); Northwest Lawyers and Artists (Portland, Oregon); Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; ArtCar Fest; the artist historian Douglas Nickel; and artists Butch Hancock, Kelly Lyles, Leo Aston, Alan Pogue, Jan D. Elftman, Philo Northrup, Harrod Blank, Emily Duffy, and Graydon Parrish.
Download a PDF of the Kleinman amicus brief. A second PDF contains the petition for certiorari, the District Court and Fifth Circuit opinions, and, at the end of the file, photographs of the artwork in question.
posted by Christopher Howard
On April 20, 2010, the US Supreme Court struck down, on First Amendment grounds, a federal statute (18 U.S.C. § 48 ) that criminalized the commercial sale, dissemination, and possession of depictions of animal cruelty, as well as of acts showing the wounding or killing of animals. The decision in United States v. Stevens endorses rights of free expression, especially as they relate to the sale and distribution of images. In summer 2009, CAA joined with the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) in filing a friend of the court brief that urged the court to strike down the law.
The Stevens case involved an appeal of a conviction on charges that the defendant had sold videos of dog fighting. The court’s 8–1 decision (only Justice Samuel Alito dissented) held that the law was overbroad because it swept in the commercial sale and use of images clearly protected by the First Amendment, including acts of hunting that were lawful in one state but unlawful in another, as well as various other activities in which animals may be wounded or killed. The court noted that its decision only protects the depictions of activities involving animals, and does not affect the criminalization of cruelty to animals.
As NCAC and CAA emphasized in their brief, CAA in no way supports cruelty to animals. Although the statute allowed for exceptions, for representations that had “serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value,” CAA was concerned that this exception would allow courts to make decisions whether a challenged work had such value. So, for example, while one court may agree that an animal-rights video that documents atrocious conditions in a factory farm is political speech and therefore legally permissible, another court, unaware of particularly aesthetic approaches, may see an artist’s sale of a work dealing with the same imagery as outside the exception and thus prohibited by the statute. In addition, CAA was concerned that if the court had held § 48 constitutional, that would set a precedent for Congress to expand the categories of speech that are not protected by the First Amendment, potentially including various types of artistic speech.
CAA filed its brief not only because § 48 had a potential direct affect on artistic creation of works that use animals, as well as the reproduction of those works and of other images depicting animals, but also because the possibility that other categories of speech could be criminalized could result in limiting the expression of CAA members as artists and teachers. The US Supreme Court endorsed the position taken by CAA in its brief.
posted by Christopher Howard
The College Art Association has joined the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Association of University Professors, and other leading groups in academia, civil liberties, journalism, and free speech to issue a Statement of Principle and Call to Action urging governments, institutions, and private individuals to support freedom of expression and academic freedom, and to resist caving in to threats of violence.
This statement (see below) is a response to a number of incidents, specifically the decision by Yale University officials to remove all images of Mohammed from Jytte Klausen’s book, The Cartoons That Shook the World. This scholarly treatise examines the violent response in 2005 to twelve drawings by Danish cartoonists depicting the prophet Mohammed. While Yale officials cited “generic” fears of violence as the reason for excising all the images, there have been no actual threats of violence.
The statement, which follows a letter sent to Yale in September 2009 regarding the images in Klausen’s book, acknowledges that violence has been a common response to controversial words and images throughout human history and is now threatening the commitment to free speech, raising concerns about “fear-induced self-censorship.”
While the statement is immediately in response to the incident at Yale, religion is only one of a number of prominent issues known to incite violence. Recent examples of self-censorship in the visual arts include an exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2008 that was cancelled in response to violent threats from animal-rights activists, and an instance in 2006 in which the Whitechapel Gallery in London made the decision not to exhibit twelve works by Hans Bellmer, declaring that they were too dangerous to display because the sexual overtones would offend the Muslim population in the area.
Statement of Principle: Free Expression at Risk, at Yale and Elsewhere
A number of recent incidents suggest that our long-standing commitment to the free exchange of ideas is in peril of falling victim to a spreading fear of violence. Not only have exhibitions been closed and performances canceled in response to real threats, but the mere possibility that someone, somewhere, might respond with violence has been advanced to justify suppressing words and images, as in the recent decision of Yale University to remove all images of Mohammed from Jytte Klausen’s book, The Cartoons that Shook the World.
Violence against those who create and disseminate controversial words and images is a staple of human history. But in the recent past, at least in liberal democracies, commitment to free speech has usually trumped fears of violence. Indeed, as late as 1989, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses continued to be published, sold, and read in the face of a fatwa against its author and in the face of the murder and attempted murder of its translators and publishers. In 1998, the Manhattan Theater Club received threats protesting the production of Terrence McNally’s play, Corpus Christi, on the ground that it was offensive to Catholics. After initially canceling the play, MTC reversed its decision in response to widespread concerns about free speech, and the play was performed without incident.
There are signs, however, that the commitment to free speech has become eroded by fears of violence. Historical events, especially the attacks of September 2001 and subsequent bombings in Madrid and London, have contributed to this process by bringing terrorist violence to the heart of liberal democracies. Other events, like the 2004 murder of Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh in apparent protest against his film “Submission,” and the threats against Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote the script and provided the voice-over for the film, demonstrated how vulnerable artists and intellectuals can be just for voicing controversial ideas. Under such threats, the resolve to uphold freedom of speech has proved to be lamentably weak: in the same year as Van Gogh’s murder, Behzti, a play written by a British Sikh playwright, was canceled days after violence erupted among protesters in Birmingham, England on opening night.
In response to rising concerns about fear-induced self-censorship, in 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published an article, “The face of Mohammed,” which included twelve cartoon images. The cartoons became the focus of a series of violent political rallies in the Middle East in February 2006 and a subject of worldwide debate pitting free speech against “cultural sensitivity.”
For all the prominence of religion in such debates, threats of violence against words and images are not the sole province of religious extremists. In 2005, a politically controversial professor’s scheduled speech at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY was canceled in response to threats of violence. In 2008, the San Francisco Art Institute closed a controversial video exhibition in response to threats of violence against faculty members by animal rights activists. Later that year, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln canceled a speech by former Weatherman and education theorist William Ayers citing security concerns.
The possibility of giving offense and provoking violence has entered the imagination of curators, publishers and the public at large, generating more and more incidents of preemptive self-censorship: in 2006, for instance, London’s Whitechapel gallery declared twelve works by Surrealist master Hans Bellmer too dangerous to exhibit because of fears that the sexual overtones would be offensive to the large Muslim population in the area; and publisher Random House canceled the 2008 publication of Sherry Jones’ The Jewel of Medina because “it could incite acts of violence.” The suppression of images in Jytte Klausen’s book is the latest, but not likely to be the last in the series of such incidents.
Words and images exist in complex socio-political contexts. Suppressing controversial expression cannot erase the underlying social tensions that create the conditions for violence to begin with, but it does create a climate that chills and eventually corrupts the fundamental values of liberal democracy.
A Call to Action
The incident at Yale provides an opportunity to re-examine our commitment to free expression. When an academic institution of such standing asserts the need to suppress scholarly work because of a theoretical possibility of violence “somewhere in the world,” it grants legitimacy to censorship and casts serious doubt on their, and our, commitment to freedom of expression in general, and academic freedom in particular.
The failure to stand up for free expression emboldens those who would attack and undermine it. It is time for colleges and universities in particular to exercise moral and intellectual leadership. It is incumbent on those responsible for the education of the next generation of leaders 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.
To paraphrase Ben Franklin, those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, will get neither liberty nor safety.
Joan E. Bertin, Executive Director, National Coalition Against Censorship
Cary Nelson, President, American Association of University Professors
American Association of University Professors
American Civil Liberties Union
American Federation of Teachers
American Society of Journalists and Authors
Center for Democracy and Technology
Center for Inquiry
College Art Association
First Amendment Lawyers Association
First Amendment Project
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
International Publishers Association
Modern Language Association
National Coalition Against Censorship
National Council of Teachers of English
National Education Association
People For the American Way Foundation