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Minnesota Prestidigitation By: Lloyd Billingsley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, March 24, 2006

The cartoons depicting Mohammed first appeared in Jyllands-Posten in Denmark but the controversy has reached obscure corners of the globe, including Century College in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. There, on February 7, Karen Murdock, a geography and earth sciences instructor, posted the 12 cartoons on a social science bulletin board, with a warning that they were controversial, as a way to promote discussion.

“I'm a liberal,” Murdock told FrontPage. “I support gay marriage and gun control, and I also support free speech.” Murdock was also concerned that many students were reacting to the cartoons without even having seen them because American newspapers, in an accession of political correctness, had declined to publish them.


“Mainstream newspapers are shortchanging the public and preening about it,” she said. “They are getting away with cowardice and bragging about it.” Various student newspapers have printed the cartoons but Century College, formerly Lakewood Community College, does not have a student newspaper, despite a student body of 12,000. Murdock took that as part of her motivation to post the cartoons herself.


“I can't believe I'm the only one forcing this thing,” she said. “What are Yale and Harvard doing about this?”


After posting the cartoons, she surrounded them with news stories and blank sheets for comments. Rather than accept the invitation to open a dialogue, a person or persons promptly tore down the entire display. Murdock replaced everything but again someone tore it down. Who did it remains uncertain but possibilities include Murdock's boss, and administration officials.


For Murdock, the “risk-adverse” administration was replicating the retreat of the mainstream press. Other possible vandals include the Islamic students, whom Murdock describes as friendly and polite but unfamiliar with American society. There are about 40 such students at Century College, many from Africa.


On February 9, Islamic students began to prevail on Mike Bruner, Century's Vice-President for Student Services. Bruner, who did not respond to FrontPage, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that “When students come to me who are hurt, it signals to me we're off course somewhere.” That Karen Murdock might have been hurt by removal of her display, and pressure from school officials, apparently did not enter the equation.


On February 10, Century College president Larry Litecky, sent an e-mail to the college community:


Issues involving free speech, freedom of the press, and religious tolerance and respect have been front page news around the world in recent weeks. This week, similar conversations have occurred here at Century College.


Century College strives to be a welcoming place for all individuals in the college community. The valued diversity of our community means that we may be confronted by ideas, statements, or publications with which we are not familiar or do not agree. Colleges and universities have long been recognized as the “marketplace of ideas” in our country. It is our hope that Century College can lead by example in having discourse about the many competing ideas and beliefs in a respectful, thoughtful, and tolerant manner and better equip us as members of both the local and global community.


John O'Brien, Vice President of Academic Affairs, wanted to talk things over with Murdock, an adjunct part-timer who does not have tenure. But then, on February 16, O'Brien sent her a memorandum explaining that he would not be able to meet with her as they had scheduled:


It is my understanding that you posted the cartoon as a way of fostering discussion on an issue in the news. While I do not believe the approach used was effective from a pedagogical standpoint, 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. No disciplinary action was or is contemplated in response to the events of last week.


O'Brien had also met with a group of Muslim students and, at their request, conveyed the message to Murdock that they were “heartbroken to see the posting of the defamatory infamous cartoon of our holy prophet Mohamed.” The unsigned message continued: “. . . We need to see in classes instructors who respect different cultures and represent what the school stands for.”


Muslims at Century were the likely authors of a notice posted on the social science bulletin board warning students not to call or approach Murdock because she allegedly could not be trusted. The note was unsigned. Muslim students, however, continued to complain and administrators responded with plans for a forum. Meanwhile, Nancy Livingston, Century College Director of Advancement, told the Associated Press that administrators neither took down the display nor ordered its removal. Murdock felt sufficiently encouraged to post the cartoons again on February 25, but this time she shielded them behind a curtain and added a sign.


“Warning!!” said the poster-sized notice, backdropped in bright pink. “The material beneath this curtain is controversial and some people may find it offensive. These are 12 cartoons of Muhammad, first published in a Danish newspaper in September 2005.”


Again an unknown assailant tore down the display. Murdock's boss David Lyons asked that she not put up the display again, and the untenured Murdock definitely felt leveraged.   On March 10, the Century College website featured a statement by President Larry Litecky:


There has been worldwide controversy related to the publication of cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. Century College has recently experienced its own controversy related to the decision of a faculty member to post the cartoons on a divisional bulletin board on campus.     


Century College has responded without hesitation to protect the right of free speech and, at the same time, work to make sure all our students feel welcome on our campus.


I want to make it clear that college administration at Century has neither censored anyone’s free speech nor removed any of the posted cartoons. We do not condone the removal or destruction of legitimately posted materials. We are committed to the vigorous discussion of ideas and believe this is a fundamental dimension of the college experience.


That Century had acted “without hesitation to protect free speech” seemed something of a stretch. The college was interested more in evading responsibility than in safeguarding the rights of Karen Murdoch, who says that conservatives and libertarians have jumped to her defense more than her fellow liberals. She does not feel threatened and was not disciplined, but neither were those who tore down her display. Murdock, who did undergraduate work at Middlebury and remembers the sixties, has a grasp of the dialectic at work.


“The [Islamic] students haven't learned multiculturalism and free speech,” she said. “What the students have learned about American society is complain, complain. What lesson does it send? If they protest against something it will be removed.”


“Administrators are the same [as they were in the] sixties,” she adds: they “like to cut and run.” She can find no examples of the administration responding in similar fashion to any other student or group claiming to be “hurt.”


“There's a double standard at work,” Murdock says, “because are they are scared of them, not sensitive.”


At a March 14 meeting of the social science division, Murdock raised the issue of the bulletin boards. Everyone but herself thought that what had happened would make a terrible impression on visitors. A history professor said that the public boards should be limited to “responsible speech.”


At this writing the “forum” is still in the works. Murdock has offered to organize it, bringing in the ACLU, art historians, etc., but she suspects that a show trial is on the way.


I rather imagine this will be more of a kangaroo court in which the Muslim students get to tell me how hurt they have been over this controversy and what an insensitive bigot I am for posting the cartoons.” 

In this way does today’s college solve its social problems.

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Lloyd Billingsley is the author of From Mainline to Sideline, the Social Witness of the National Council of Churches, and Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s.

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