FIRE Demands Minnesota Campus Officials Allow Free Exchange of Ideas
by Jim Brown
Century College in Minnesota is being accused of wrongly censoring a geography professor who posted controversial cartoons of Muhammad that were originally published in a Danish newspaper and which have sparked outrage among Muslims worldwide.
Early last month, adjunct professor of geography Karen Murdock posted the cartoons on a hallway bulletin board near her office in an attempt to allow students who might not have seen the cartoons an opportunity to evaluate them. However, the drawings were torn down repeatedly.
Murdock says at one point her academic division head removed the cartoons himself, and he and a college vice president both requested that the drawings not be reposted. But when the geography instructor put up the cartoons behind a curtain later in the month so passers-by would not be offended, she says the drawings were taken down again, and she received another request from her division head not to repost them.
However, Charles Mitchell with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) believes Murdock should not have to comply with a request that should never have made in the first place. He says the Century College officials, who ought to have stood up for Professor Murdock’s right to be free from vandalism and censorship, instead told her to quiet down.
This is wrong for a number of reasons, Mitchell contends. “Number one, the First Amendment prohibits a university from actually censoring someone for expressing their views,” he points out. “Number two, public universities have a positive responsibility to make sure that people are free from a heckler’s veto or anything like that, and this college is failing on both points.”
Advocating on Murdock’s behalf, FIRE wrote to Century College President Lawrence Litecky, stating that the school’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 drawings.
Vice President of Academic Affairs John O’Brien responded, citing a communication sent by the president to the entire Century community, urging that “discourse about the many competing ideas and beliefs” be conducted in a “respectful, thoughtful, and tolerant manner.”
Nevertheless, Murdock’s postings continued to be pulled down, and her division head continued to request that the images not be displayed. While the geography instructor was told the ultimate decision was hers to make, she explained 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.”
Murdock says the cartoons would still be posted if she felt she had any say in the matter. “We are a college,” she argues. “We are supposed to be a forum for the free exchange of ideas. If we can’t talk about this controversy at a college, where are we supposed to talk about it?”
Mitchell and other free-speech advocates at FIRE feel the professor is right and that Century College’s administration and division officials should reverse its course. “They need to make a real statement,” Mitchell says, “not the muddle that they put out before, but a real statement about how this professor’s rights will be protected and that her job is safe.”
FIRE’s interim president Greg Lukianoff says Century College’s administrators need to understand that their first duty is to promote the open exchange of ideas on their campus, “not cater to those who would prefer silence on provocative matters.” He says the organization is calling on Century to end its shameful, unlawful and unwise effort to “protect” students from seeing materials that are at the heart of a global controversy.
- College Urged to Stop Censoring Prof’s Display of Muslim Cartoons, PDF, 41.5 KB , Agape Press