People look to America's elite universities to uphold free intellectual inquiry.
So it's good that Yale University Press plans to publish a book about the worldwide furor that erupted in 2005 when a Danish newspaper published a dozen cartoons about the Prophet Muhammed.
But it's not so good that the Yale University Press has decided not to include the disputed cartoons in the book.
Besides being absurd on its face -- how can readers analyze the issue without seeing the cartoons? -- the move is a vote of no confidence in free discussion of ideas. It is a de facto statement that, when a bully is offended by an idea, the idea should be stifled.
Moreover, Yale seems to have gone out of its way to look for a problem.
Author Jytte Klausen, a professor of comparative politics at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, who specializes in the interplay of secular and religious cultures in Europe, has written a scholarly examination of the controversy that arose after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed satirically. One of them depicted the Prophet wearing a turban with a bomb in it. The images can be found on the Internet by searching for "Danish cartoons."
Klausen's book was vetted by many peers, including scholars of Islam, and in any event is unlikely to be widely read outside of academia.
The cartoons at issue have been reprinted many times since 2005 without triggering any repeat of the violent protests that occurred at the time.
That squares with Klausen's proposition, which is that the scattered rioting in which more than 200 people died was not a spontaneous reaction to the cartoons, but was orchestrated by groups in several countries using propaganda techniques to whip Muslims into a frenzy. In some cases, the aim was to affect elections in Denmark and Egypt and, in others, to destabilize Muslim governments in other countries.
Yet, when The Cartoons that Shook the World was on the way to printing, Yale decided to raise the issue explicitly by asking several more "experts in the intelligence, national security, law enforcement and diplomatic fields" if publishing the cartoons might spark new violence.
Many said it would, and the publisher not only excised the 12 cartoons involved in the original controversy but, for good measure, struck out all other depictions of Muhammed that Klausen had used, including some that have been widely published around the world for centuries.
Yale's timidity is especially unfortunate because the reason the cartoons were created was to defend the right of free expression against religious extremists' demands that no one be allowed to write or draw things that offend them.
Prohibiting the cartoons damages Klausen's work and, as one blogger noted, it gives extremist thugs veto power over public discussion.