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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.
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.