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MINNEAPOLIS—The uproar over cartoons of the prophet Mohammed may be fading in some places, but not at Century College in Minnesota. After repeatedly encountering censorship of her display of the cartoons on a hallway bulletin board, Professor Karen Murdock finally posted them behind a curtain so that passers-by would not be offended. Yet even after assuring Murdock and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that free speech is valued at Century, administrators allowed censors to tear down the hidden cartoons and insisted that she not put them back up.
Karen Murdock bent over backwards to make sure that students who disapproved of the cartoons would not be exposed to them, but this was still not good enough, remarked FIRE Interim President Greg Lukianoff. Sadly, the college has sided with the proponents of suppression rather than the advocates of open, meaningful, and informed dialogue.
At the height of the international controversy surrounding the Mohammed cartoons, adjunct professor of geography Karen Murdock was concerned that most students at Century had not even seen the cartoons and would therefore be unable to evaluate them intelligently. On February 7, she posted the drawings, related newspaper articles, and blank comment sheets on a bulletin board near her office where various faculty members post items of interest. The cartoons were repeatedly and anonymously torn down, and she replaced them each time. Finally, she says, her academic division head, David Lyons, removed the cartoons himself, and Vice President of Student Services Mike Bruner asked that she not repost them. Vice President of Academic Affairs John O’Brien then called a meeting with Murdock.
FIRE wrote to Century President Lawrence Litecky on February 16, stating that [t]he college’s responsibility to free speech and open inquiry far outweighs any responsibility the college has to avoid offense and that Murdock could not be punished for posting the cartoons. That same day, O’Brien sent Murdock a letter canceling the scheduled meeting and insisting that the administration did not remove the political cartoon you posted, nor direct that it be removed or not reposted. O’Brien also responded to FIRE, asserting that no meeting had been scheduled with Murdock and citing an e-mail sent by President Litecky to the entire Century community vaguely urging that discourse about the many competing ideas and beliefs should be conducted in a respectful, thoughtful, and tolerant manner.
Believing that discussion and the free exchange of ideas at Century were now secure, Murdock posted the cartoons again on February 25, this time behind a curtain. Three days later, censors struck again, tearing down the cartoons in midday, and Lyons asked that they not be reposted. A memo he posted on the bulletin board explained that materials on that board should rotated in a timely fashion, and that faculty members have expressed concerns about the displaying of the cartoons on a division of social and behavioral sciences bulletin board.
As FIRE’s February 22 statement on the Mohammed cartoon controversy explained, colleges have a twofold duty when it comes to dealing with censorship, said Lukianoff. First, there is the duty to not censor the free expression of ideas, especially important and newsworthy ones. Second, colleges have the duty to protect speakers from being silenced by others. Century has failed miserably on both counts.
In the context of making his request, Lyons did claim that the ultimate decision was Murdock’s. However, as Murdock pointed out to FIRE, When a division chairman and a college vice president both tell an untenured adjunct professor that something should not be posted on a bulletin board, this is a suggestion that has the force of a direct order. The cartoons would still be posted if I felt that I had a say in the matter.
Murdock has expressed great frustration with the situation. We are a college. We are supposed to be a forum for the free exchange of ideas, she said. If we can’t talk about this controversy at a college, where are we supposed to talk about it? She continued, We are supposed to be able not merely to deal with controversy but actually to welcome it!
Professor Murdock is right on target, Lukianoff concluded. Century administrators need to understand that their first duty is to promote the open exchange of ideas on their campus, not to cater to those who would prefer silence on provocative matters. The college must end its shameful, unlawful, and unwise drive to ‘protect’ its students from seeing the materials at the heart of a global controversy.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve freedom of expression on college campuses across the country during the cartoon controversy can be viewed at thefire.org/cartoons.
(Posted on March 10, 2006)