Mohammed Cartoon Controversy Sweeps the Academy

By on February 22, 2006

PHILADELPHIA, February 22, 2006—The global controversy over cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed has now struck American college campuses. In response, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) issued a statement today reminding colleges and universities that free speech needs protection now—in the face of ongoing controversy—more than ever.
 
“It is when expression is most hotly contested and the calls for suppression are the loudest that we must defend liberty the most fervently,” said FIRE Interim President Greg Lukianoff. “I am reminded of the infinitely wise words of Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson: ‘Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.’”
 
FIRE’s statement stresses that the First Amendment unquestionably protects printing and posting the infamous cartoons. It also points out that while fear of violent reprisal could be an impetus for censoring the cartoons, “fear must not lead universities to forget that their primary duty is to defend the rights of students and faculty to hold and express their opinions, not placate those who would silence them.” The statement goes on to explain that universities have both a “negative” duty not to censor the cartoons as well as a “positive” duty to protect speakers from being censored by others.
 
Although censorship in response to displays of the cartoons has been rare, it has indeed occurred. At Century College in Minnesota, adjunct professor of geography Karen Murdock posted the 12 original cartoons, articles about the resultant international controversy, and comment sheets on a bulletin board near her office. After the cartoons were anonymously torn down several times, Murdock reported that her division head removed the cartoons and a university administrator requested that she not repost them.
 
Some Muslim students also wrote a letter saying they were “heartbroken” to see that Murdock had posted the cartoons, claiming that “[d]uring the last week, this incident had a very negative impact on our ability to concentrate on our studies.” While no disciplinary action was taken against Murdock, she has not reposted the cartoons out of fear of possible fallout. She told 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.”
 
At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, student editors Acton Gorton and Chuck Prochaska printed six of the original 12 cartoons in the independent student paper The Daily Illini. The Chicago Tribune reported on February 14 that the Illini’s board of directors, composed of staff and students, dismissed Gorton and Prochaska for failing to consult with “other student editors and staff members” in making the decision to print the cartoons. The paper then ran an editorial apologizing for printing the cartoons and calling Gorton “a renegade editor who firmly believes that his will is also the will of the paper.”
 
The Chicago Maroon reported on February 17 that an anonymous University of Chicago student hung a homemade sketch of Mohammed with a caption reading “Mo’ Mohammed, Mo’ Problems” outside his dorm room. After receiving a complaint about the sketch, Resident Head Andrea Gates ordered it removed and reported the student who had posted it to the Housing Office for a possible investigation. The student removed the sketch and issued a written apology. The university has taken no further action, and FIRE continues to investigate the situation.
 
Similarly, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), student Mitchell Foley reported to FIRE that he had posted the 12 cartoons on his dorm room door until his resident assistant told him to remove them. He removed the cartoons and has not reposted them; RPI has not commented on the situation.
 
There have also been various instances of student papers running the cartoons with little to no reaction from administrators. Student papers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Purdue University, the University of Arizona, Northern Illinois University, and Harvard University have all printed the original cartoons, or their own versions depicting the prophet, without official consequence.
 
“No one should deny the student press’ freedom to publish these cartoons,” Lukianoff concluded. “Administrators have the right to criticize newspaper decisions—as does every American—but this criticism cannot and must not be parlayed into censorship.”
 
FIRE works on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities, and urges people to report any instances of censorship of these cartoons on college campuses at thefire.org/submit. 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.
 
CONTACT:

Greg Lukianoff, Interim President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg_lukianoff@thefire.org