Muhammad Cartoon Crossfire

A Minn. community college adjunct is told to keep images off bulletin board; Illinois and Chapel Hill student papers set off debates.
February 13, 2006

It was only a matter of time until the controversy over the cartoons of Muhammad landed at an American college -- and it has happened in White Bear Lake, Minn., where the cartoons were posted on a community college bulletin board.

Meanwhile, the student newspaper at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was criticized by the institution's chancellor Friday for publishing the cartoon, and Muslim students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill criticized the student paper there for publishing its own cartoon about the controversy.

A 'Teachable Moment' at Century

Karen Murdock, an adjunct who teaches geography and earth sciences at Century College, makes it a point to put up interesting news articles on a bulletin board for faculty members in the hall of a class building. She notices students reading and talking about the articles, and views this as a way to encourage students to think about the world. So with the cartoons of Muhammad, originally published in Denmark, inflaming so many people, she thought on Tuesday that she would put up some articles about the situation, along with the images themselves, which she found online.

"I just thought it was a teachable moment," she said.

Over the course of the week, she said, the materials were torn down several times and she put them back up several times. But as the week progressed, she was urged by her department head and two vice presidents not to repost the materials, and they are not up now.

College officials maintain that the materials are down because Murdock took the advice of a faculty colleague, but Murdock said that she believes she was told by superiors not to place the cartoon up again. Administrators became involved after Muslim students at the community and technical college met with a series of officials to say that they were hurt and offended by having the images on a bulletin board.

Century, northeast of St. Paul, has about 12,000 students a year, many of them enrolled part time. It is unclear how many Muslim students are enrolled at the college, but several dozen expressed anger to administrators. Most of the students were part of the Somali population that has settled in the region.

Nancy Livingston, a spokeswoman for the college, said it would be incorrect to say that the institution had ordered the cartoons removed. She said that Murdock made her own choice after a "faculty to faculty" exchange with her department head. Asked if an adjunct could really say No to a department head, Livingston said that the role of a department head at Minnesota community colleges "is really more of a coordinator" and that "they really don't have power" over adjuncts.

Livingston said that the issue was "touchy" for the college, which wanted to be sensitive to its Muslim students and to faculty rights. She said that discussions about the cartoons led last week to the formation of a Muslim student group for the first time at Century. "We want our international students to feel welcome," she said.

At the same time, Livingston noted that administrators in Minnesota are well aware of faculty rights to free expression. "We certainly have no control over what people put on bulletin boards. There's a First Amendment issue," she said.

Murdock is less certain about freedom of faculty expression at the college -- at least in this case. She said she did not feel she had a choice to put the cartoons back up (although she did put back a notice that included the Web addresses where students could find the cartoons). She said that when an adjunct is told by her chair and multiple administrators that it's not a good idea to post something, the message is clear.

And so is the message to students, she said. "The lesson students are learning so far is that if they scream and pout and otherwise make things unpleasant, the administration will cave. If they get upset about something, it will go away," she said.

Murdock said that she wasn't aiming for any uproar when she posted the cartoons and articles about them. "I'm just an adjunct and I just want to teach about the causes of earthquakes," she said. As for the earthquake of discussion she set off at her college, Murdock said she's not sure what the rumblings will mean for her. "I don't have tenure."

Freedom of the Student Press

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the cartoon controversy took center stage Thursday, when The Daily Illini published a column that included the controversial cartoons. In the column, Acton H. Gorton, the paper's editor in chief, called the cartoons "bigoted and insensitive." But he also said that it was wrong for the press generally to cover the controversy while denying the public the right to see what had set off the protests.

"As the editor of a college newspaper, I cannot claim to be a champion for free speech and at the same time restrict it from running its course," Gorton wrote, urging students to write in their views and participate in public discussions of the issue.

Reaction has been mixed, with some praising the newspaper and others criticizing it. Among those in the latter camp is Richard Herman, chancellor of the university. In a letter to the editor, Herman said he was "saddened" by the publication of the cartoons. "The right of free speech, and a free press are core values in American society, and I believe in them wholeheartedly. Yet the right to publish incendiary material does not mean that a publication must publish that incendiary material," he wrote. Herman cited as an example the way many publications "editorialize about pornography without publishing pornographic pictures."

The Daily Illini is independent of the university, and while the chancellor criticized the newspaper, he did not call for it to be censored, but urged people to debate all of the issues involved, concluding: "Although I disagree with the DI's decision, I am confident that we as individuals and as a university will always be made wiser and stronger by debate."

At Chapel Hill, The Daily Tar Heel published its own cartoon -- and is receiving both praise and criticism for doing so. The cartoon shows an image, apparently of Muhammad, standing between two minaret-style windows: one showing a scene with Denmark's flag and the other showing violent protest. A bubble beside the Danish scene has Muhammad thinking, "They may get me from my bad side..." and the bubble beside the violence has him thinking "...but they show me from my worst."

The Muslim Students Association at Chapel Hill is demanding that the paper apologize for running the cartoon, which a statement from the association called "highly offensive." The Muslim group added: "Though we value freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the DTH's actions have irresponsibly misused these valued rights to offend and further only intolerance and disrespect. Such actions undermine the environment of diversity and multiculturalism that UNC's student body, faculty, and administration try to create."

Many people -- a number of them identifying themselves as Muslim students -- posted comments under the cartoon on the newspaper's message board, criticizing the paper for publishing it. Some objected to any image of Muhammad and others questioned the timing of the cartoon, amid all the controversy.

One reader who defended the newspaper offered the following: "How can you NOT agree with this cartoon? It's not the newspaper's job to make sure everyone feels good; it's their job to portray what's REALLY happening. A Danish newspaper prints a caricature of Muhammad, and Muslim fundamentalists FIREBOMB THE DANISH EMBASSY? Burn U.S. and Danish flags, and chant anti-Western sentiments? An Iranian newspaper has a 'Holocaust cartoon contest'? The point is: with every passing day the Muslim extremists make their faith look more and more violent and ridiculous. I think the cartoon is dead on and I could give a crap about the 'bad timing' of it. Thank you, DTH."


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