Last week, a group of Yale alumni (myself included) released an open letter protesting Yale University Press' decision not to publish the infamous Muhammed cartoons in a book about those very illustrations. "The Cartoons That Shook the World," by Brandeis Prof. Jytte Klausen - set for publication within weeks - details the 2005 events in which Muslim preachers seized upon 12 drawings in a Danish newspaper to orchestrate a global campaign of violence that led to the deaths of 200 people.
Citing fears of further hostility, the Press, under the advisement of top university officials and unnamed outside "experts," chose to withdraw from the book not only the original cartoons but all images of the Muslim Prophet, whose visual representation Islamic law deems blasphemous. In so doing, Yale has sacrificed the fundamental liberal value of free speech on the altar of political correctness.
As the heat on their decision has ratcheted up, Yale and its defenders have hunkered down - insisting that their sole concern was that printing the cartoons would endanger the safety of those involved.
"I believe deeply in the principles of the First Amendment and academic freedom," said Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International and a member of Yale's governing board, in which capacity he advised the Press not to publish the cartoons. "But in this instance Yale Press was confronted with a clear threat of violence and loss of life."
There is no evidence of such a threat ever being made. And even if there was, Zakaria's excuse makes a mockery of the principle it claims to support. According to his logic, any crackpot who makes vague warnings of violence against a writer whose work he disapproves of should now be preemptively appeased.
Zakaria's reasoning is even more misplaced given the thesis of Klausen's book: That, far from a spontaneous expression of genuine anger, the worldwide protests engendered by the cartoons were a deliberate plot carried out by opportunistic Muslim fundamentalists.
John Donatich, director of the Press, chastises critics of Yale's decision for "grandstanding." It says something sad about our political culture today that defending the fundamentally American notion of free expression is considered demagogic. And if anyone's grandstanding, it's the legions of fundamentalist Muslims whose supposed sensitivities Donatich is servicing.
Donatich cites Yale University Press' publication of other controversial books as proof of his willingness to make politically tough choices, mentioning an unauthorized biography of the King of Thailand. "I've never blinked," he defiantly told The New York Times. But printing that book does not exactly warrant a free speech warrior's badge of courage; his Royal Highness Bhumibol Adulyadej is not known for suborning the murder of overseas critics.
Let's be clear about the stakes here: By censoring the cartoons, Yale has allowed religious totalitarians to dictate terms to free people living in an open society.
The hypocrisy is almost unfathomable. Consider the vast array of books that have been published on the subject of anti-Semitism. An author penning a book on European anti-Semitism during the interwar period would be remiss - in fact, borderline dishonest - to exclude historical images of hooknosed Jews and rabbis spreading their octopus-like tentacles around the globe.
But the Muhammed cartoons, which are not nearly as offensive, are ruled unprintable.
It is not too late for the Press to right this wrong - if Yale starts listening. Late last week, the PEN American Center, an organization of writers devoted to free expression, sent a letter to Yale's president and board of trustees calling the decision "out of character." On Oct. 1, Kurt Westergaard, who drew one of the Muhammed cartoons, will speak at the university.
It would be incredibly disheartening to see an educational institution whose self-proclaimed mission is the pursuit of "Light and Truth" continue its surrender to the forces of darkness and lies.
Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic and a Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellow.