A Lesson In Protesting Insulting Cartoons

by Edward Koch and Rafael Medoff

As mobs throughout the Muslim world assaulted European targets in response to the publication of caricatures of Muhammad, an Iranian government newspaper offered its own bizarre response to the controversy by announcing a contest for cartoons mocking the Holocaust.

In their fevered imagination, the Iranians believe they will expose a double standard, according to which the West allegedly tolerates cartoons offensive to Muslims but will not tolerate cartoons deriding the Holocaust. What Tehran apparently does not realize is that Americans already grappled with this issue two years ago — and responded very differently.

On April 21, 2004, The Medium, a student newspaper at Rutgers University, published a cartoon under the headline “Holocaust Remembrance Week: Springfest 2004.” It portrayed a carnival-style scene of a bearded Jewish man sitting above an oven, with a person throwing a ball at him. The caption read: “Knock a Jew in the oven! Three throws for one dollar! Really!”

Rutgers president Richard McCormick criticized the cartoon as “outrageous in its cruelty” and asked the editors to apologize, but concluded there was nothing he could do to punish the newspaper. The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech would prevent a state university such as Rutgers from shutting down The Medium or even cutting off its funding “based on its viewpoint,” McCormick said, citing a memorandum by his legal staff.

Instead of circling the wagons, the university’s lawyers should have engaged in a little creative thinking. There was, in fact, a variety of ways that Rutgers could have responded to the cartoon, as the solicited comments from a number of other university presidents and constitutional experts soon revealed.

On the one hand, there were some who took a position similar to that of McCormick. Brown University president Ruth Simmons and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for example, agreed there was nothing Rutgers officials could do beyond criticizing the newspaper. Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman went even further, writing back that although her private university was not bound by the same First Amendment restrictions as Rutgers and therefore could shut down a student newspaper for any reason, doing so would constitute censorship and therefore she would have refrained from taking such action.

But others felt differently. New School University president Bob Kerrey was the most blunt: “An apology is not enough. The paper should be closed and no university funding ever provided to the students who were responsible. This would be my minimum response.”

Constitutional experts Floyd Abrams and Alan Dershowitz pointed out that while Rutgers could not single out one publication, it is under no obligation to fund any student newspapers at all. Dershowitz noted that “many major universities, including Harvard, do not fund the student-run newspaper, precisely because they do not want to be associated with the adolescent views often expressed therein… So long as the decision to de-fund newspapers is made across the board and without regard to the particular content of the particular newspaper, I think it will pass constitutional muster.”

Stephen Gillers, vice dean and professor at the New York University School of Law, offered a thoughtful comment regarding the student activity fees that Rutgers students are charged, and which are used to fund campus newspapers. He found a relevant Supreme Court decision that would permit Rutgers to give students the option to request that none of their fees go to The Medium. Why, indeed, should students be compelled to finance a publication that they might legitimately regard as promoting bigotry?

Neither the public nor a university are required to quietly accept any outrageous action in the name of free speech. There are appropriate, peaceful, legal ways to register one’s displeasure over a grievous insult.

Nobody responded to the Rutgers cartoon with arson attacks or stonings or violence of any kind. The editor of The Medium was not jailed. No legal restrictions were imposed upon the newspaper or the university. Instead, reasonable people engaged in a thoughtful discussion within the context of complete respect for freedom and the law.

That is the standard according to which a civilized society should conduct itself. And it is a standard to which everyone should be held — regardless of the depth of their religious sentiments or the extent to which their feelings have been injured.

Edward Koch is a former mayor of New York City. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. They are authors of the forthcoming book, “Reflections on Antisemitism and the Holocaust.”

Published in The Forward – February 17, 2006