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To Show or Not to Show Muhammad Cartoon

March 30, 2006

Amid apparent security concerns, New York University decided to edit a panel discussion on the Danish cartoons of Muhammad.

The NYU Objectivist Club organized its “Free Speech and the Danish Cartoons” panel for Wednesday night. The program description says that the panel will discuss topics like “Why the cowardly and appeasing response of many Western governments -- including our own -- will only invite further aggression.” The club originally planned both to display the cartoons and to provide some tickets to the event to people not affiliated with NYU.

On Monday, Robert Butler, NYU’s director of student activities, sent an e-mail to panel organizers informing them that the panel must either be closed to the public, or the cartoons must not be displayed. “Safety [is] always a concern when a controversial program is held on campus,” read Butler’s e-mail. “After consulting with Jules Martin (VP for Public Safety) … regarding the campus climate and controversy surrounding the cartoons we are going to require that this event be open only to members of the NYU community.” Butler added that, if the cartoons are displayed, about 75 non-NYU guests who had asked to attend should be told not to show.

John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, said that the university preferred to have the students choose not to display the cartoon, thus maintaining the ability to invite outside audience members. “The reason for our preference was that an important group in our Muslim community made it clear that they found the display of the cartoons deeply offensive,” Beckman said. Initially, however, the Objectivist Club took door number two: keep the cartoons, and close the panel to the general public. But hours before the event, the club changed its tune, and decided not to display the cartoons.

Student members of NYU’s Islamic Center circulated e-mails planning a protest before the club decided not to go with the cartoons. Maheen Farooqi, president of the Islamic Center, said in an e-mail that “we at the Islamic Center are all for discourse and dialogue and we would encourage the Objectivist Club to partake in whatever discussion they would like.” But any depiction of Muhammad is sacrilege in the Muslim faith, and the center did not think the cartoons were a necessary part of that discussion.

Farooqi added that the Islamic Center “would not encourage racism in any shape or form, and to us and many others, these cartoons are racist and we adamantly oppose their display.”

Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said that NYU should never have gotten involved with managing the event. “Depicting disturbing events or images so you can discuss them is never considered to be the same thing as endorsing the image,” Lukianoff said. “These might very well be the most newsworthy cartoons in American history.”

Beckman noted that the university never planned to block the display of the cartoons, only to limit the event to the NYU community if the cartoons were displayed “with an eye towards ensuring that event goes forward without disruption.”

 

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