Middle East studies in the News
Freedom Center Free Speech
New York Sun
The fate of the International Freedom Center seems to be growing less certain by the day, as public opinion - or at least the politicians - are wavering. It may be that even supporters are starting to wonder whether the light is worth the candle. For our part, we have a great deal of regard for many of the individuals who have been leading the Freedom Center. We tend to think it could be a good thing to have a lively institution celebrating freedom based at ground zero. But we sense more and more people are starting to worry about the case of the "elephant dung-splattered Madonna."
That was the piece of art - a painting of the Virgin Mary, splattered with elephant manure and surrounded by depictions of women exposing their genitalia - that in 1999 sparked a high-profile legal battle between Mayor Giuliani and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Mr. Giuliani argued that the painting was offensive, and that the taxpayers who help fund the museum shouldn't have to subsidize the display. A federal judge, Nina Gershon, rebuffed the mayor, ruling not only that the museum had a First Amendment right to display the painting, but that the taxpayers did not have a First Amendment right, or any other, to stop funding it simply because they were disgusted at what it put on display.
The Freedom Center isn't likely to get the same kind of direct funding the Brooklyn Museum gets. But it would receive some limited form of government support. It has been selected as a tenant for the site by a quasi-governmental agency, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and the corporation would be the center's landlord. So what kind of rights is the public, which is helping underwrite ground zero, going to have?
To judge by the logic that the lawyer for the Brooklyn Museum, Floyd Abrams, used against the people's elected representatives in the case of the elephant dung splattered Madonna, not much. Recounted Mr. Abrams in his recent book "Speaking Freely": "[T]here is nothing in any case which says that once the city begins to fund the arts and treats a museum not as a spokesman for itself but as still an independent, autonomous entity, a public forum as it were, that the city can then switch and say, 'We don't like that picture,' or 'We don't like that concept for a picture.' "
Not very encouraging, even if one does, as we do, admire many individuals in the leadership and the advisory circles of the IFC. And the IFC hasn't been all that surefooted, either. In a July 6 letter to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the center's chairman, Tom Bernstein, sought to allay public concern by suggesting, among other things, that the programming would be supervised by a consortium of "world-class universities, from New York City, the nation, and the world" - including Columbia University, which won't allow ROTC on campus and has been protecting an anti-Israel Middle East studies department.
When Mr. Bernstein writes that "each of these great institutions has its own time-tested mechanism for ensuring the appropriateness of programs they offer," people in town think, "He can't possibly be talking about the Columbia we know." And if the IFC and Columbia run off the rails and our public representatives try to advance the public's point of view, what is going to happen when they are haled before the next Judge Gershon?
In the last few weeks, we had a lively meeting with Debra Burlingame, the leader of the opposition to the IFC and the sister of the pilot of the plane that terrorists crashed into the Pentagon on September 11. She is one impressive individual. But her view is somewhat different than ours. What bothers her is that she feels it will be inappropriate to conduct the kinds of programs the IFC envisages at the site at ground zero. In contrast, we're less concerned with where the IFC is going to operate than who is going to pay for it and, if the public is going to pay any part, what rights it will have.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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