On the evening of March 29, a long line of Ayn Rand fans passed through various security checks before taking an elevator up to the fortified fourth floor of the Kimmel Center for University Life at New York University. There, the school’s Objectivist Club, which is essentially a small book club dedicated to The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged and the writer’s essays espousing free speech, was holding a panel discussion about the Danish cartoons that had ignited a furor in the Muslim world.
Fans of Ms. Rand (1905-1982) and her theory of Objectivism (what she called “a philosophy for living on earth”) had traveled from all over the city thinking they’d be getting a glimpse of the offending cartoons while speakers from the Ayn Rand Institute and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education attacked governments and the press for censoring them. The speakers performed as expected, but they did so in front of easels holding blank panels: The Objectivist Club, under pressure from N.Y.U., decided not to show the cartoons.
The trouble started when the club asked to place an announcement in the school newspaper. University officials grudgingly consented, but in subsequent days, word of the event spread around campus. Some Muslim students, who said the cartoons offended them, appealed to the university to prevent their display.
On Monday, March 27, according to Objectivist Club president Kara Zavarella, a 25-year-old English Ph.D. student, the university informed the club that the event would be closed to the general public because of security concerns. But the next day, N.Y.U. officials offered Ms. Zavarella a choice: If she agreed to cut the cartoons, the public could come in too. She reluctantly chose the N.Y.U.-only audience so she’d be able to display the cartoons. “It was either our guests or the cartoons,” said Ms. Zavarella, who noted that Objectivist clubs at Johns Hopkins and U.C.L.A. had successfully shown the cartoons.
“N.Y.U. cowardly gave in to exactly what it was that we were trying to address with the cartoons.” John Beckman, a spokesman for the university, said that N.Y.U.’s community of 55,000 students and staff was sufficient for a “pretty robust free exchange,” even with the doors closed to the general public. “I think we can do free speech on our own,” he said.
But when non-N.Y.U. Objectivist members were told by e-mail that they wouldn’t be able to attend, they responded angrily. And so, on the day of the event, Ms. Zavarella opted to scratch the cartoons and open the panel to a wider audience.
“It was more important to get the ideas across to all the people,” she said. Even without the cartoons, there were protests. On the evening of the event, members of the N.Y.U. Islamic Center sat on a marble staircase in the Kimmel Center.
At 6:30 p.m., Arsalaan Ahmed, a 19-year-old biochemistry major, stood up in front of the glass doors. With a silver cell phone clipped between his black pants and red plaid shirt, he faced Washington Square Park and sang the Adhan, the Muslim evening call to prayer. Taxis slowed to look inside. Students with textbooks tucked under their arms walked by with raised eyebrows. Then Mr. Ahmed and the Muslim students walked across the street to pray.
“We thought we would start out as a protest to the Danish cartoons that the Objectivists were going to show. But they decided not to show them,” said Maheen Farooqi, a 21-year-old politics major and president of the Islamic Center. She wore a flowing periwinkle jilbab and a multicolored hijab as she joined about 40 other students praying behind a police barricade on the street. The men stood in the front, some wearing Yankee jerseys and N.Y.U. sweatshirts and white socks. The women prayed behind them. Rocking back and forth in brown loafers, off to the right, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, 27, from the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, prayed in a sign of solidarity.
Not everyone was so understanding.
“What the hell is this? Why do they get to do this on the side of the street?” said Dianna Fleisher-Benz, a 19-year-old freshman studying creative writing.
She wore a tweed jacket and a jean miniskirt over tights that reached down just below the knees. Below her exposed calves she wore maroon stilettos. She went over to get some answers from one of the half-dozen police officers that had been called in to make sure things stayed peaceful.
“So, basically, N.Y.U. was going to show the cartoon. Now they are praying, apparently, to stop it,” reported Ms. Fleisher-Benz to her friends.
“What cartoons?” asked Betsy Rosenberg, an 18-year-old freshman from Houston majoring in communications.
“You know about the cartoons. The ones from Holland. The ones the Muslims are so upset about. Because they have no division between church and state over there,” said Ms. Fleisher-Benz.
“Well, it’s nice to hear that N.Y.U. is more open-minded,” said Ms. Rosenberg.
Inside the building, security was tight. Only one elevator was permitted to go to the fourth floor, where guards were stationed in the stairwells. Metal detectors were set up outside the auditorium, which ended up only being half-full. (According to Ms. Zavarella, the event was weakened by student saboteurs who, she claimed, had collected and ripped up many of the 75 free tickets reserved for non-N.Y.U. Objectivists.) Down at the main entrance, some of the Objectivists who didn’t have tickets started shouting. One waved a printout of his e-mail invite and yelled something about free speech. A white-haired security guard told a colleague to “keep an eye out for that guy.”
That’s when Ms. Zavarella, a slim, fast-talking woman, descended the steps in a black party dress.
“Kara! Kara! I have a ticket and they are still not letting me in,” pleaded Steve Meserlian, a 44-year-old Objectivist whom the security guards had accused of trying to sneak past them.
Ms. Zavarella, who first read Atlas Shrugged at Tolland Middle School in Connecticut, was told by an N.Y.U. official that the program was behind schedule. Perhaps channeling Ms. Rand’s philosophy of egoism over altruism, she shrugged off Mr. Meserlian and dashed back upstairs. Seconds later, the security guards escorted him out, where some of the Muslim women stood chatting on the sidewalk.
“I drove an hour to get here,” said Mr. Meserlian, crestfallen. “From New Jersey.” —Jason Horowitz
Who Listens to Christian Radio? Recently, I was surprised to discover that not everyone who listens to Christian radio is a Christian. My friend Seth confided to me: “I tune in The Sound of Life quite often and mentally substitute the name of my guru—Sri Yukteswar—for Jesus.” Are other non-Christians listening to these proliferating stations? I wondered. Several Orthodox Jews admitted that they do. “As long as the songs are addressed to the Lord, I listen,” explained Harvey Flexner. “When they mention his ‘son,’ I turn the dial.” Even atheists and agnostics tune in! “When I hear a song like ‘You, Oh Lord, Are My Refuge,’ I just think of Leibniz,” revealed mathematician Joel Rivers of Columbia University. —Sparrow