Are they teaching censorship in Minnesota?

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)

Karen Murdock is an educator, but right now she is the one who is receiving an unexpected education in the fragility of civil liberties.
On Feb. 7 Murdock, a part-time professor of geography at Century College in White Bear Lake, posted the controversial Mohammed cartoons, first published in a Danish newspaper, on a bulletin board at the college to allow members of the college community who had not seen the cartoons to judge for themselves. She also posted newspaper articles about the controversy and several blank sheets of paper for comments. The cartoons were repeatedly torn down. She replaced them each time. Then the head of her academic division, David Lyons, removed the cartoons himself, and Vice President of Student Services Mike Bruner asked that she not repost them.
“I thought this might be controversial,” Murdock said. “But I didn’t think it would be quite this controversial. We are a college. We are supposed to be a forum for the free exchange of ideas. If we can’t talk about this controversy at a college, where are we supposed to talk about it? In bars? At curling clubs? In fishing shacks on Mille Lacs? As a college, we are supposed to be able not merely to deal with controversy but actually to welcome it.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote a letter to Century College President Lawrence Litecky on Feb. 16, reminding him of the school’s “responsibility to free speech and open inquiry far outweighs any responsibility the college has to avoid offense” and that Murdock could not be punished for posting the drawings.
In a letter to Murdock on Feb. 16, Vice President for Academic Affairs John O’Brien said the college administration played no role in removing 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.” Murdock disagrees with this assessment. “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,” she said.
After this exchange between O’Brien and FIRE, Murdock believed she could repost the images. She restored the display on Feb. 25 with a curtain shielding the cartoons and a large sign warning of their potentially offensive nature. Three days later, the cartoons were again anonymously torn down. Lyons asked her not repost them and posted a message on the bulletin board stating material should be “rotated in a timely fashion,” and that faculty members have “expressed concerns about the displaying of the cartoons on a division of social and behavioral sciences bulletin board.”
“Karen Murdock bent over backwards to make sure that students who disapproved of the cartoons would not be exposed to them, but this was still not good enough,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE. “Sadly, the college has sided with the proponents of suppression rather than the advocates of open, meaningful and informed dialogue.”
At a Social and Behavioral Science Department meeting held March 14 it was proposed that the department adopt policies regarding use of the bulletin boards. Faculty members present voted 16 to 1 to limit the use of the bulletin boards to departmental information. Karen Murdock’s was the lone dissenting vote.
Is this post hoc policy formation a thinly disguised form of censorship? Karen Murdock thinks so. “The discussion of the “offensive” bulletin boards at the faculty meeting last week would have made James Madison spin in his grave,” Murdock said. At the department meeting it was clear that the decision was very much related to the current controversy and that the purpose was to control content. One faculty member said they needed to “defuse what’s there now” and “we’ve opened Pandora’s box. We never intended the board to take on that character.” Another said he thought that if a “free speech board” was allowed, it should be in the basement and not on a well-trafficked hallway such as the one outside the Social Sciences office where “anyone” might see it and think “this is terrible.” He said he thought that the boards in the hallway generated “more controversy” than those in a classroom and that controversial displays there did not promote “a good atmosphere conducive to learning.”
Murdock stands by her decision to display the cartoons and she questions the directive to keep them out of public view. “We are teachers. We are children of Socrates,” she said. “If we flee from controversy, then Socrates died in vain. We are supposed to challenge our students. We are not supposed to make our students comfortable; we are supposed to make them think.”
“Colleges have a twofold duty when it comes to dealing with censorship,” said Lukianoff. “First, there is the duty to not censor the free expression of ideas, especially important and newsworthy ones. Second, colleges have the duty to protect speakers from being silenced by others. Century has failed miserably on both counts.”

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