The Cartoon Scandal at Yale

by Richard Brookhiser

The Yale Political Union (whose vets range from John Kerry to WFB) celebrated its 75th anniversary over the weekend. Prof. Akhil Amar and I were invited to give remarks at the gala dinner. I made a few jokes, then praised the Union for its commitment to free debate, free thought, and free speech. As an ecumenical gesture to Union liberals, I quoted Thomas Jefferson, who, in his retirement, ordered a book from France, Sur la Creation du Monde, which was held up in Philadelphia for a possible blasphemy prosecution (it evidently included some sharp Deist polemic). Jefferson wrote the following (April 19, 1814):

I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this can become a subject of inquiry . . . as an offense against religion. . . . Is this then our freedom of religion? And are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatize religious opinions for our citizens? Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? . . . It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not, and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason. If [this] book be false in its facts, disprove them; if false in its reasoning, refute it. But, for God’s sake, let us freely hear both sides if we choose.

I said, “The inquiries go on. Yale University Press decided to publish The Cartoons That Shook the World, without any of the cartoons, and the Yale Corporation backed them up. That is the end of that inquiry, but there will be others. The hijackers of a religion who wish to impose their views of its laws will be back for another cut. A country like China is less aggressive, but companies that do business there, like Google and Yahoo, find themselves taking the roles of mutes and snitches. The most mortifying thing about these bad decisions is that they are made by publishers, educators, and Internet service providers, who profess devotion to free speech even as they clip it.”

So, I concluded, it is particularly important for the Yale Political Union to maintain its traditions. The audience, mostly undergraduates, seemed broadly favorable. It is a notable thing when students are braver and more sensible than the administration.

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