Very few university-press decisions generate much heat beyond the academic world. Yale University Press, however, has lately made headlines in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and many corners of the blogosphere. But this is the kind of publicity no publisher wants.
At issue is the press's decision to remove all the illustrations, including recent and historical images of the Prophet Muhammad, from a forthcoming book, The Cartoons That Shook the World. The move was made after the university consulted with outsiders, some of them national-security experts, who said the images could incite violence. The author, Jytte Klausen, a professor of comparative politics at Brandeis University, reluctantly agreed to the removal of the images but has made it clear in interviews that she is not happy about it.
Who's the real villain here? The press has been accused of caring more about a generalized threat than about scholarship and academic freedom. The Yale administration has been blamed for inserting itself into the press's editorial affairs. There have been cries of "follow the money" from those who believe that some potential donor brought pressure to bear on the university. (Linda K. Lorimer, a vice president and secretary of Yale, called the suggestion insulting.) It will take time to sort out answers.
But one different, and difficult, question that other scholarly publishers and authors ought to be asking is what kind of precedent Yale's decision sets. New interviews with the press director, the author, and faculty-rights advocates indicate widely split opinions. Some say this will have a chilling effect on scholarship, while others say it was a rare response to a rare situation.
Ms. Klausen's book is by all reports no polemic. It examines the controversy over the cartoons, published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005, that set off protests and violence with their depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, among other images. Ms. Klausen is a social scientist, not an art historian, but her argument draws on visual evidence. She especially wanted to reproduce the original newspaper page with the cartoons, along with older illustrations that included a Gustave Doré engraving of the prophet's torment described in Dante's Inferno.
Ms. Klausen and her publisher probably expected that the book would attract only modest attention outside scholarly circles. Now it has become a hot item even before publication, which, by the way, has been bumped up from November to September in response to the brouhaha.
The decision to purge the book of images, made public in a New York Times article, set off a cascading series of reactions and excoriations. The Yale press issued a written statement that explained how it had weighed the risks, asked the university for assistance, and listened to the opinions of the outside consultants whom Yale brought in. "The decision rested solely on the experts' assessments that there existed a substantial likelihood of violence that might take the lives of innocent victims," the press said.
Fear of a Precedent
The statement did not appease the critics. Commentators on the left and the right accused the press and the university of cowardice and of abandoning their duty to protect freedom of inquiry. Christopher Hitchens, in Slate, wrote that "the capitulation of Yale University Press to threats that hadn't even been made yet is the latest and perhaps the worst episode in the steady surrender to religious extremism."
The situation seems extraordinary, one in a million. But what's to prevent a publisher from deciding that it's too risky to publish other material with a history of provoking violence? Some observers wonder whether one act of pre-emptive appeasement won't lead to another, and another.
That's a point emphasized by Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors. Hours after the Times article appeared, Mr. Nelson's group took the unusual, even unprecedented step of publicly condemning the press. In a written statement, "Academic Freedom Abridged at Yale Press," Mr. Cary said that "we deplore this decision and its potential consequences."
In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Nelson called the press's action "fundamentally cowardly. You don't see academic books waved around in the street with large mobs protesting. It's a bridge too far to worry about that."
Asked whether we are likely to see more such episodes of what some have called self-censorship, Mr. Nelson said, "I guarantee you will," observing that text can offend, too. "That's why this is a slippery slope," he said. "If presses start chickening out on text as well, it seems we really don't have academic freedom."
In an e-mail interview, John E. Donatich, director of the Yale press, dismissed the idea that the episode sets a precedent. "I absolutely conclude that this was an extraordinary case," he said. "I have been involved with a number of controversial books that the university supported. This was a very special case."
The Yale press will not be more risk-averse in the future, said Mr. Donatich. "I don't see any way in which this will change the way we acquire. We've never shied away from controversial material," he said. "And not only are we proceeding to publish Klausen's book, we are crashing the production schedule to take advantage of the media. We are supporting the book completely and boldly, and publishing the complete text. We have also heard from many who are sympathetic with or supportive of the decision as reasonable and responsible. These, however, are not the people who are self-selecting on the Internet."
He disputed the idea that academic freedom is at stake. "We are not censoring or suppressing any original content," he said. "Moreover, the author and the press are in full partnership in publishing the book aggressively, despite our disagreement in presentation. We have found a way to continue to be partners in publishing the book. The commentary seems to miss that fundamental point."
Ms. Klausen probably wouldn't use the term "full partnership" to describe the relationship. She understands the worry over the cartoons from the Danish newspaper, although it was the layout of the newspaper page itself that she particularly wanted to include. She hasn't received any threats herself, and "there's never been any violence" over the Doré engraving. And the press knew from the start what it was dealing with. She said she understands that "universities are risk-averse institutions" with a duty to protect employees and students, but "I do think there are some very large principles at stake."
She described herself as amazed, even amused, by the controversy. "There's been such a mismatch between my book and the response," she said. "It's like going after sparrows with cannons." Still, she fears that this kind of controversy will push other scholars away from controversial subjects. "I think it has a chilling effect on the field," she said. "I have tenure, I need not worry about what the consequences will be for promotion or anything like that. But for sure, if you are a young professor writing in this area, well, risk aversion would indicate that you don't walk down this road."
The Chronicle asked her how she felt about the AAUP statement. "Legally speaking, it's probably an exaggeration" to say that academic freedom has been abridged here, she said, but "in principled terms, I think the AAUP statement is probably correct."
It worries her that the decision to remove the illustrations was encouraged by consultants, many of them not academics but national-security types who did not actually read the book. "We in academic publishing have to work under this dark cloud of unspecified and generic risk," she said. "That brings us into new territory that I find quite scary."
She's also taken heat for not switching publishers. "I'm being described as an appeaser," she said. "The sense is that I should have just stood on principle and taken my book to another press. That's not so easy to do, because university publishing is a very slow process. I didn't have any offers from other publishers."
Mr. Nelson of the AAUP applauded Ms. Klausen for staying with the press. "She has focused the moral and academic issues by keeping Yale involved," he said. "She would have been helping Yale avoid criticism by moving to another publisher. By basically fighting with Yale in public on the issue, she has forced them to confront the consequences of their decision."
Other university-press directors with whom The Chronicle spoke did not want to talk publicly about the case, out of sympathy for a fellow director in the hot seat, and because they were not privy to all the circumstances surrounding the decision. That makes it hard to gauge how other academic publishers would have weighed the possible risk attached to Ms. Klausen's book.
The fear of being flogged in the media, as Yale has been, may outweigh a publisher's fear that a book will be too hot to handle. "I'm just glad it's not us," one director said, echoing the general sentiment right now.
One good thing to come out of all this: The Cartoons That Shook the World will almost certainly have a larger audience now than it would have if its publication had gone as planned. Before the controversy, "I don't know if I would have bought this book," Mr. Nelson said, but now "I'm very interested in reading it."
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