Professor Fears Retribution Over Mohammed Cartoons

March 10, 2006

A part-time professor at Century College in Minnesota is under fire from students and the school administration for posting copies of the now-infamous Mohammed cartoons on a college bulletin board.

Karen Murdock, an adjunct professor of geography, first posted the cartoons on a community board on Feb. 7, along with related newspaper articles about the controversy and blank paper for students and faculty comments.

According to Murdock, the cartoons were torn down repeatedly, and she was told by college administrators not to repost them.

In a letter to Murdock on Feb. 16, Vice President for Academic Affairs John O’Brien said the school administration played no role in removing or banning the cartoons.

"While I do not believe the approach used was effective from a pedagogical standpoint," O’Brien wrote, "I also want to be clear that Century College administration did not remove the political cartoon you posted, nor direct that it be removed or not reposted."

On Feb. 25, Murdock reposted the cartoons under a curtain with a large warning of their potentially offensive nature. The head of Murdock’s academic division, David Lyons, asked her to remove the cartoons and not repost them.

In a memo posted on the same bulletin board, Lyons wrote that he "asked (his emphasis) Ms. Murdock to remove the display … because someone else has a display that they would like to put on this board," adding that material "should be rotated in a timely fashion."

Lyons also wrote that "faculty in our division (in addition to some students) have expressed concerns about the displaying of the cartoons." He added that "no disciplinary action was or is contemplated in response to the events of last week."

But as an untenured professor, Murdock said she fears her position is at stake.

In a release issued by the free speech advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Murdock said that "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."

FIRE President Greg Lukianoff defended Murdock, saying she "bent over backwards to make sure that students who disapproved of the cartoon would not be exposed to them," referring to her efforts to hide the display behind a curtain.

Lukianoff said the school has a duty "to protect speakers from being silenced by others" and that 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."

Representatives from Century College did not return calls requesting comment.

Cases: Mohammed Cartoon Controversy: FIRE Response to Intimidation and Newspaper Disputes Topic: Campuses Attempt to Censor Publication of Depictions of Mohammed