Professor censored over Muhammad cartoons

March 10, 2006

An adjunct college professor in Minnesota who repeated posted copies of the Muhammad cartoons that sparked deadly riots worldwide says her rights have been violated by school officials who failed to prevent the display from being repeatedly torn down and pressured her into not reposting the images on campus.

Professor Karen Murdock is a geography teacher at Century College in White Bear Lake, Minn. She says she posted the cartoons on a bulletin board used by faculty so members so the campus community could see what the global controversy was all about.

According to a statement from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, which has gone to bat for the teacher, Murdock, after the display was repeatedly and anonymously taken down, put the cartoons behind a curtain so as not to offend passers by.

"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," said 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."

The professor had posted the drawings, related newspaper articles and blank comment sheets on a bulletin board near her office where faculty members post items of interest.

She says her immediate boss eventually took down the display and she was directed not to replace it.

After letters were exchanged between FIRE and Vice President of Academic Affairs John O’Brien about the display, Murdock believed she could again repost the images. The professor put up the display once more Feb. 25 but this time behind a curtain. Three days later, FIRE says, the display again was removed. An administrator posted a message on the bulletin board stating material should be "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."

"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."

Stated Murdock: "We are a college. 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? We are supposed to be able not merely to deal with controversy but actually to welcome it!"

Cases: Mohammed Cartoon Controversy: FIRE Response to Intimidation and Newspaper Disputes