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A Costly Muhammad Cartoon

April 18, 2006

A Belmont University administrator is out of a job after Nashville's alternative newspaper drew attention to a mocking cartoon he drew of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. The Baptist university in turn has been criticized by some for having an official who would mock another faith and for allegedly forcing out someone for expressing a commitment to free expression.

Bill Hobbs is a conservative blogger and political commentator based in Nashville and until Monday, he was a public relations official at Belmont. Hobbs announced his resignation just days after The Nashville Scene published an article detailing a satirical cartoon contest he started (and abandoned) amid the furor over the Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad.

In his contest, since removed by Hobbs, but reproduced in the Scene article, a stick figure of Muhammad appears with a bomb and the caption "Muhammad Blows." Readers were invited to "exercise your right to free expression by drawing pictures of Islam's 'Prophet Muhammad' before the West gives in to Islamist intimidation and fear of Islamist violence and makes it illegal to do so."

The contest by Hobbs never took off, and the Tennessee blogging world is full of suggestions that the cartoons were publicized last week as part of various political machinations in the state having nothing to do with Belmont University. But Hobbs was repeatedly identified as an official of Belmont (at least until Monday). To date, several American colleges -- among them Century College of Minnesota, New York University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- have found themselves caught up in controversies over the Danish cartoons and how to respond to them, but no one besides Hobbs has lost a job.

Hobbs announced his resignation from Belmont in a posting on another blog in which he said that his departure was a "mutual" decision and praised the university. But many commenters there and elsewhere criticized the university for not sticking up for Hobbs. His departure from Belmont is being called McCarthyite, "a travesty of justice," and evidence that "the barbarians are truly at the gate." (Few of the comments have noted that Hobbs worked in public relations at Belmont.)

Via e-mail, Hobbs declined to comment, but said that this online account -- which questioned how his removal was consistent with Belmont's values -- was accurate.

Jason Rogers, vice president for administration and university counsel at Belmont, said that it was university policy not to discuss personnel matters and that he could say little more than that Hobbs was no longer employed there.

Asked about criticism that the university's handling of the situation conflicted with free expression, Rogers said: "The university is committed to freedom of expression. This particular situation isn't about freedom of expression. It's about a personnel matter."

 

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