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"State Censorship by Proxy”

On August 13, 2009, I issued a statement, headed “Academic Freedom Abridged at Yale Press,” on behalf of the American Association of University Professors. I drafted the statement within a few hours of reading a New York Times story on the press’s decision to delete all illustrations from a forthcoming book by Jytte Klausen. I then had key members of our national staff review the statement, revised it accordingly, and had them distribute it to the media. The issues seemed clear, and the Times had interviewed the main participants in the events. What was critical, from our perspective, was to help shape the story in the immediate news cycle. I knew that conservative columnists would spin it as an example of political correctness run amuck and a fear of offending Muslims—and ignore the issue of academic freedom. By acting quickly we were able to have an influence on the commentary that followed. Our statement was quoted almost immediately in Canada and Britain and then spread to Europe and across the world. A few days later I wrote to the director of the Yale Press asking that he reverse his decision and publish the illustrations in an unnumbered separate signature, a viable option late in the publication process. My letter went unanswered. Here is the text of my statement:

We do not negotiate with terrorists. We just accede to their anticipated demands.” That is effectively the new policy position at Yale University Press, which has eliminated all visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad from Jytte Klausen’s new book The Cartoons That Shook the World. Yale made the unusual decision not only to suppress the twelve 2005 Danish cartoons that sparked organized protests in many countries but also historical depictions of Muhammed, like a nineteenth-century print by Gustave Dore. They are not responding to protests against the book; they and a number of their consultants are anticipating them and making or recommending concessions beforehand.

In an action that parallels prior restraint on speech, Yale also refused to give the author access to consultants' reports unless she agreed in writing not to discuss their contents. Such reports typically have their authors' names removed, but a prohibition against discussing their content is, to say the least, both unusual and objectionable.
Publishers often refuse to print color illustrations to save money, or limit the number of black-and-white illustrations to reduce the length of a book, but Yale Press has not raised any financial issues here. The issues are: 1) an author’s academic freedom; 2) the reputation of the press and the university; 3) the impact of these twin decisions on other university presses and publication venues; 4) the potential to encourage broader censorship of speech by faculty members or other authors. What is to stop publishers from suppressing an author’s words if it appears they may offend religious fundamentalists or groups threatening violence? We deplore this decision and its potential consequences.


It would be unacceptable for the administration to pressure its press to remove any portion of a manuscript.

Not long after the first stories appeared, we began to receive allegations by e-mail that Yale administrators and faculty members not connected with the press had a significant role in the decision to censor the illustrations. Even now, those rumors remain unconfirmed, and investigating them was beyond the AAUP’s resources. One may only hope that reporters continue to press for further details, since the depth of the violations of academic freedom may be still greater than we realize. It would be entirely appropriate for the press to give the administration a heads-up about a potentially controversial book, but it would be unacceptable for the administration to pressure its press to remove any portion of a manuscript, including its illustrations. The press’s unconventional decision to seek opinions from a large number of nonacademic advisors is also highly questionable, more so because these advisors did not see the whole manuscript. The press’s claim that all its consultants urged the illustrations be eliminated was cast into serious doubt when one of them announced in public that she had in fact recommended they be included. Since then the press has revised its claim to say that it was only the “national security and intelligence experts” who were unanimously opposed to publication. For many of us that makes matters worse, since it suggests that Yale staff or consultants with present or past connections to the national security state were involved. We are now confronted with state censorship by proxy.

Some of the justifications the press offered for its action were also deeply problematic, among them the claim that Yale would have blood on its hands if publication of the book provoked a violent reaction anywhere in the world. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out in a telling column, only those who advocate or carry out acts of violence are fundamentally responsible. If we censor any speech that might offend any group prone to violence, free discussion and debate would be stifled. Proactive self-censorship, followed by administrative or governmental suppression of speech, would soon enough come to replace our constitutional guarantees. That is the slippery slope onto which Yale has propelled us.

No better is the press’s claim that it only censored previously existing illustrations and that it would never censor new material. That opens the possibility of the press censoring supporting quotations and evidence that an author uses to establish the credibility of an argument. We are thus further down that slippery slope than we were a week ago.


Some have argued that Klausen should have withdrawn the book and submitted it to a different publisher.

Ordinarily, the views of the consultant faculty members who read the entire manuscript carry considerable weight. If they recommend revisions, an author will often be required to take them seriously. The press itself may also impose its house style on an author and even demand that a book’s title be changed, since that is considered a marketing decision. But a demand that text or illustrations be eliminated for ideological reasons, when those changes are against an author’s wishes, trespasses on academic freedom. It sets a dangerous precedent.

Some have argued that Klausen should have withdrawn the book and submitted it to a different publisher if she was determined to include the illustrations. My own view is that that might well have allowed Yale to escape criticism for its actions, since submitting a manuscript elsewhere does not make for much of a story. By making her disagreement with Yale public and not taking them off the hook she has effectively forced them to face the consequences of their decision and encouraged worldwide debate about the matter. These remarks in the Yale Alumni Magazine are part of that debate. the end



Just this brief note to congratulate the Yale Alumni Magazine for publishing the column by Cary Nelson, national president of the AAUP, reflecting on the sorry decision of the Yale Press in excising relevant photos in a serious and worthy book. What was sadly lost at Yale by the shabby action in thus censoring that book has, in turn, been significantly redeemed in your own publication of Professor Nelson’s compelling criticism.







“Yale University Press and the Danish Cartoons”






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