NYU Censors Its Arabian Campus

I’m a longtime Greenwich Village resident, having been first attracted by its legacy of free expression. Where else could I hang out at the White Horse Tavern where the Clancy Brothers sang of Irish rebellion against the king and where, as soon as I got to the bar, I got into arguments about what I’d been writing at the nearby Village Voice?

And I soon became grateful to New York University for my having found a mentor and friend there in educator Neil Postman—an independent thinker and author (Amusing Ourselves to Death). He foresaw the coming erosion of American individuality under what became this digital land of ceaseless, often entertaining diversions under Orwellian presidents.

Neil also gave me my first gigs as a controversial teacher in his NYU department.

John Sexton
John Sexton

But I doubt that even Neil could have imagined that years later, a president of NYU, John Sexton (former dean of the law school) would so despoil the reputation of NYU nationally and globally as a paragon of higher-education free inquiry as Naomi Schaefer Riley has reported in “The Despot NYU Doesn’t Dare Question” (New York Post, June 22, 2012).

As she writes, five years ago, Sexton and the government of Abu Dhabi had created “a model of academic excellence in the Persian Gulf Emirate” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 3, 2012). But that model disintegrated when a student at another Abu Dhabi campus was imprisoned for nine months for “insulting government officials and inciting others to break the law.”

This is how NYU president Sexton responded when Human Rights Watch asked: “Is NYU going to advertise the magnificence of studying in Abu Dhabi while the government persecuted an academic for his political beliefs?”

Did Sexton, a scholar of our First Amendment, answer by quoting back Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo’s classic definition of our identity as Americans: “Freedom of expression is the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom”?

Hell, no. Speaking in the (London) Times Higher Education Supplement about his venture in spreading U.S. higher education in the United Arab Emirates, Sexton glibly said: “We shouldn’t behave there the same way you behave in Greenwich Village or Piccadilly in London. . . . It’s about being sensitive to your cultural environment.”

Gee, President Sexton, will the next NYU campus abroad be in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, or maybe, wow, in China? Or North Korea?

Dutifully, Leah Reynolds, the editor of the student newspaper at the NYU–Abu Dhabi campus, told The Chronicle of Higher Education: “We’re not here to cause trouble.”

Exploded Naomi Schaefer Riley as she brought us this Sexton-made shame of NYU: “When was the last time you heard that from an American college journalist? Or any American college student?”

John Sexton and I clashed previously after a Danish newspaper in 2005 published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, which Islamists regarded as blasphemous. Protests grew in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere that resulted in fierce violence, including killings.

In 2006, FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education)—on whose steering committee I’ve long served—sent a letter to Sexton, which I joined, asking him to “publicly repudiate the university’s censorship of a discussion about the cartoons and to live up to the university’s promises of freedom of expression.”

Instead, Sexton put up more obstacles to confronting the fear of violent reprisals. I wrote about his shaming of NYU in the Voice and also in USA Today.

Meanwhile, I was closely following the successful intimidation of American news sources by Muslim protesters to the cartoons here and abroad. While there were stories, along with some of the cartoons, in The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Sun, both The New York Times and The Washington Post were afraid to show any of the cartoons. And amid other censorships, Yale University Press, publishing a scholarly analysis of these firestorms—which intermittently continue to this day—blocked out the cartoons.

I ran one of the more controversial cartoons in my Voice column, with the support of the editors.

I considered being that out of step with most of the press—and still do—a high point in the tumultuous history of this newspaper. Because that spirit continues, I am still at the Voice once a month.

But I do have to admit that for some weeks after my column and that cartoon of Muhammad appeared, I would, from time to time on the street, sneak glimpses into baby carriages and other innocent-appearing vehicles to see if there were any indications of machine guns or other weapons under the covers.

The result: I’m still here typing. Maybe I should check again if this column resurrects any murderous intentions.

From the start of the story, I kept on it, suspecting that not all of the protests were spontaneous. Finally, I got leads on what was going on from John Eibner—director of the Zurich-based Christian Solidarity International—from whom I often got leads covering Sudan’s genocide in Darfur (now continuing in the Nuba Mountains and South Sudan).

What I learned from John Eibner—and what the Voice was the first to publish in America (“The Cartoons Conspiracy,” The Village Voice, February 14, 2006)—was the role played in setting the stage for some of the fierce demonstrations—by the Saudi-based Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), representing 57 Muslim states at a summit meeting in Mecca in December 2005.

Here is the core of why many of these protests raged on. The OIC’s Muslim states “resolved to pressure—through a program of joint Islamic action-international institutions, including the U.N., to criminalize insults of Islam and its prophet.

And dig this, John Sexton, “In its final resolution, in Mecca, the OIC focused on the satirical caricatures of Muhammad,” having “described publication of the caricatures as ‘blasphemy.’ Blasphemy is punished by death, according to Shariah law.”

Lo and behold, as I later reported here and in the February 2, 2009, Washington Times: “In an 83-to-53 vote, with 42 abstentions, the U.N. General Assembly urges nations to provide ‘adequate protections’ in their laws or constitutions against ‘acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general.’”

And, President Sexton, “Only Islam and Muslims are specifically named in this resolution against religious defamation sponsored by Uganda—on behalf of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Among those opposed was a majority of European countries, Japan, India, and some others. Also the United States, which does indeed support domestic “hate speech laws,” along with, I kid you not, the American Civil Liberties Union.

When I put that dangerous cartoon of Muhammad in my Voice column, I didn’t yet know about all of what I just reported. I did know—as I wrote later in “U.N. Forbids Defaming Religion, Especially Islam” (Cato Institute, January 29, 2009)—that: “I was damned if I’d be intimidated for doing my job as a reporter. What most stays in my mind is that before the December 18 U.N. resolution on defamation of religions, so much of the free press refused to run even one of the cartoons at the core of the story, and hardly anything about the United Nations’ December 18 resolution.”

A final note: I was, of course, stunned and honored when New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute named me “as one of the 100 outstanding journalists of the last 100 years.” But that came as a result of reporting like this column, exposing how New York University president John Sexton has so dishonored New York University.

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
Marilyn Stults
Marilyn Stults

Birds of a feather. John Sexton is the dictator of NYU.


Truth To Power: How did you manage to justify all that Bull based on what I said? I indicated that I was expressing my opinion in my comment. You are attacking me, an American, for my free speech right here in America. Your rhetoric is hard on my diagnosed PTSD resulting from the Vietnam War so I had better not comment again on this subject.


Bravo to Mr. Hentoff for having the courage and strength of his convictions to expose the disgraceful situation for what it really is. Another seminal article mentioned here is Naomi Schaefer Riley's “The Despot NYU Doesn’t Dare Question” (New York Post, June 22, 2012). I would another, earlier one addressing other angles of Pres. Sexton's ambitions in Abu Dhabi: Zvika Krieger's aptly-titled "The Emir of NYU" (New York Magazine, April 13, 2009). Both are readily available online. My main point, however, is in response to Major Ray. If Pres. Sexton's actions, as you say, bespeak godliness, I sure would hate to see what wickedness looks like. Mr. Hentoff lays bare the hypocrisy behind the University administration's selective hearing in Abu Dhabi. Yet you also happen to mention the NYU expansion here at home. Pray tell, then, what is so "Godly" about a University president running an academic institution like a real estate corporation, admitting more and more students, to bursting point, and all the while asking our City Council for more and more square footage to accommodate the rising flood undergraduates in what is, already, the nation's largest private university? What is so "Godly," moreover, about charging these students over $55,000/yr. in tuition, room and board, making NYU not only among the most costly institutions but also the most ridden with student debt (on average, a stunning $41,000 per student upon graduation)? Student debt has now eclipsed the 1 trillion-dollar mark nationally, outstripping credit card debt. And as host of journalists have written -- Timothy Noah (The New Repulic), Matthew Harris (The Fiscal Times), Tamar Lewin and Andrew Martin (NYT), to name but a few -- there is no more punishing or unforgiving debt than student debt. All the while, one campus after another is springing up all over the globe with the NYU banner from Abu Dhabi to Shanghai. Is NYU now a market brand, or is it still a "private university in the public service" committed to its academic mission and the stewardship of its community? The present administration appears to have forsaken New York for the world. You speak of "godliness"? I see only shame.


Hey what's wrong with opening up another campus in China? Students are studying abroad to learn, experience, and communicate, not to carry out activism. Also, keep in mind that although it's an American college, it's still just a campus, not an embassy or a consulate. It's not operate under the American law. Even if people want to make a difference there through cultural interaction, they have to do it subtly and gradually.


Freedom of speech in America can never be the same over there because to insist on it would be culturally insensitive and probably suicidal. What would be the point of a global learning experience? Why this issue now? I think I recognize your spiritual signature. Your article appears to be in complete resonance with another group of antagonists in Washington. They too wish to discredit a president so they can accomplish their selfish agendas. What is your reason for this attack? Is it to stop the NYU expansion? It fits the spiritual signature of the others. The President of NYU is a Godly person and he does not deserve to be attacked with viscous innuendos. This is my personal opinion and I have never met the NYU president. Go Fordham!


Free speech is exactly what we are all exercising here, Major Ray -- that is, unless you somehow consider yourself to be the sole, self-designated arbiter of what is right and just, to say nothing of "Godly." There was nothing personal about my comment. I did, however, take issue with your argument. Free speech and the right to disagree: Isn't that what makes the United States a great place to live, as opposed to, say, Abu Dhabi?