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Muslim Cartoon Controversies at Harvard and Illinois

February 16, 2006

As violence continues in the Middle East over the publication in Denmark of cartoons showing images of Muhammad and mocking the Muslim prophet, two more American college newspapers have published the cartoons and the editors who went first were suspended from their positions.

At Harvard University, a conservative newspaper published the images. The Harvard Salient ran them with an editorial commentary called "A pox (err, jihad) on free expression." The commentary said that "it is shameful that these cartoons have led to the arson of embassies, death threats, and demands that 'whoever insults the prophet, ill him.' " The editorial predicted that Islam would eventually go through a "maturing process," part of which would be "not catering to sensitivity borne of fear of death that has plagued many would-be critics of radical Islam."

The Salient also published two examples of "truly vile" anti-Jewish cartoons that have appeared in the Arab press.

Khalid Yasin, president of the Harvard Islamic Society, called the newspaper's action "inflammatory and offensive."

Yasin, a junior majoring in applied mathematics and economics, said that Muslim students at Harvard had been pleased that American newspapers have not printed the cartoons, and so were disappointed to have a university publication print them. A forum is planned for tonight to discuss the cartoons.

"We don't want to talk about this as a free speech issue," he said. "We acknowledge that there is a legal right to free speech, but because you have the right to do something doesn't mean you have the obligation. It's not what's legal, but what is decent."

Editors at The Northern Star, the student paper at Northern Illinois University, have also published the cartoons, along with an article about the controversy. A note with the article says simply that the images were published "on the basis of their news value." The paper has received letters praising and criticizing its decision.

While The Salient was defending its decision to publish the cartoons, two editors who did so at The Daily Illini -- the student paper of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- were suspended. The editors who arranged to publish the cartoons said last week that it was important for the public to see what all the controversy was about.

But a statement published by the newspaper's publisher and general manager announced that the editors involved had been suspended pending an investigation. The statement suggested that the editors had failed to "engage other student editors" in "rigorous discussion" about the decision to publish the cartoons.

Acton Gorton, who was the top editor and is now suspended from that position, did not respond to messages. But he told The Chicago Tribune that he had been "betrayed" and that the investigation was an attempt to oust him.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said it wasn't surprising that the college press is going where the mainstream press is not. "It's obviously a subjective decision that reasonable people can disagree on," he said.  Student papers serve audiences that are open to material that would never appear in a local daily. For example, Goodman cited the explicit sex columns that have become a feature in many college papers.

"A significant difference between your average college newspaper and your commercial daily is the audience. College student editors recognize that there is an appreciation for and understanding of free expression on a college campus that is above that in the community at large," Goodman said.

 

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