Mohammed Cartoon Controversy Part II: Free Speech and the ‘Direct Assault’

By February 27, 2006

A reader of The Torch recently responded to FIRE’s statement that colleges have a responsibility to allow publication of the infamous Mohammed cartoons by saying:

Muslims all over the world got deeply hurt…and are in lot of pain. This is not an issue of freedom of expression, but amounts to direct assault. I hope and pray the people who opt to publish cartoons understand and respect our feelings.

That the cartoons are legally protected speech is beyond question. FIRE, following decades of Supreme Court decisions, has long held that the First Amendment defends controversial speech, and that a cry of “offense” is certainly not grounds enough for censorship. Still, this reader’s sentiment should not be dismissed, as a deeper understanding of the fundamental issues at stake in this controversy will benefit everyone. Is there no middle ground to be found here? What of those who display the cartoons in order to further an understanding of the controversy—are they guilty of a “direct assault” upon Islam?

Take the worst case of campus cartoon censorship that FIRE is aware of—the case at Century College in Minnesota. There, adjunct professor of geography Karen Murdock noted that in the midst of an international controversy—with strong opinions, cries of offense, and even violence coming from all over the world—most Century students had not seen the cartoons firsthand. Murdock, in a rather professorial vein, posted the twelve Danish cartoons, newspaper articles about the worldwide reaction, and blank comment sheets for passers-by, all on a bulletin board near her office. Malice toward the prophet or ignorance for Islam were not her motivations. She merely wanted to display and discuss an undeniably newsworthy event. Yet her division head removed the cartoons and an administrator requested that she not repost them.

Century administrators have since denied censoring the cartoons, and Century’s president, Larry Litecky, even issued a statement declaring that “[i]t is our hope that Century College can lead by example in having discourse about the many competing ideas and beliefs in a respectful, thoughtful, and tolerant manner….” Taking Litecky’s words to heart, Murdock has reposted the cartoons, this time behind a curtain to ensure that unwilling viewers are not subjected to the cartoon.

Throughout this situation, Murdock has stood up for the idea that “offensive” information is nonetheless worthy of consideration. Muslim students at Century have expressed that they were disturbed by the cartoons, and are reportedly organizing a Muslim student association. The college itself is planning a forum on Islam and free speech. These movements to educate the Century community are positive ones, and are not mutually exclusive with, but rather dependent upon, an atmosphere where issues are discussed openly and without fear of reprisal.

To The Torch’s distressed reader I respond that our ultimate goal should go beyond “respect for feelings,” to arrive at increased understanding and consideration of all sides of the argument. We have the possibility of coming away from this controversy with a new appreciation for freedom of expression as well as deeper understanding for the tenets of Islam. This deeper understanding will not result from silence, censorship, and prohibitions. True understanding comes from informed, open discussion; what better place to foster such a discussion than at a university?

Schools: Century College