Dispatches from the Creation Wars

For those who think that the whole Muhammed cartoon issue is just a European issue, let me give some examples of how the zeal to repress anything that someone might find offensive is spreading to American colleges. FIRE is reporting on a number of controversies, the latest of which is a student at the University of Chicago who faces possible expulsion from the dorms there for putting up a commentary about the controversy on his dorm room door with a sketch of Mohammed and the text Mo’ Mohammed, Mo’ Problems. He was forced to take it down and to apologize to a student who complained, but still faces possible disciplinary action by the university and is under investigation currently.

At Century College in Minnesota, a professor put up a display on a bulletin board that included the 12 caricatures, articles about the controversy from around the world and sheets for people to comment on it. After the display was torn down anonymously, she was told by a “senior faculty member” not to put the display back up. Many college newspapers have reprinted the caricatures, but at more than one the editor was punished or fired for doing so.

Let’s change the situation around a bit. Suppose instead that a student posted a commentary that indicated that they thought Christianity was the cause of problems in world history and that more Christianity meant more problems. Would there be any controversy over that? Some would disagree, of course, but would university officials with titles like “director of multicultural affairs” be “investigating” and holding forums with aggrieved Christian students to make sure their feelings are sufficently protected? Not on your life. And that’s as it should be.

It’s a university, for crying out loud. If you don’t run into ideas that shake you up, there’s no point in going. You’re going to have to confront ideas that you find offensive, absurd, even dangerous. If you’re not prepared to do that without trying to censor the person advocating those ideas, you’re simply in the wrong place. Go to Bob Jones University where the only textbook is the bible and you’ll never ever have to think for yourself, or to a Madrassa to study only the Quran. But if you’re at a real university, you’re just going to have to toughen up and deal with it or leave.

Comments

  1. #1 Caledonian
    February 23, 2006

    Universities don’t actually want free speech that they feel will reflect badly on them. Anything that produces a controversy is cracked down on immediately.

    They may have the legal right to do so if they’re privately funded organizations, but it inevitably contradicts the self-serving rhetoric they put out.

  2. #2 llDayo
    February 23, 2006

    Anyone know when the next stop is? I want to get off this planet.

  3. #3 oolong
    February 23, 2006

    Although I think it is important to expose people to new ideas and to controversy, I’m somewhat sympathetic in these cases, and even if I understand that the “line” is hard to draw that doesn’t mean there isn’t one somewhere. I’m not sure a University’s job is to promote total free speech. Being in a college is like being on the job — the administration (or boss) has an obligation to create an environment that is not threatening or oppressive such that it affects the main purpose of the place (learning, making widgets, whatever). Whether they would crack down on Christian cartoons is a different matter, one of being consistent. I can say with a good degree of assurance that neither would fly at my college. There’s a difference, I’d say, between a student saying to another one “mo mohammed, mo problems” (which the university has no say over, and frankly shouldn’t be involved with) and posting such things up on university property (one’s dorm door). I’ll have to disagree with Ed on this one. That said, explusion is a ridicuous extreme in this case.

  4. #4 Roman Werpachowski
    February 23, 2006

    Isn’t it something similar to what has happened in Harvard recently?

  5. #5 Ed Brayton
    February 23, 2006

    Oolong wrote:

    I’m not sure a University’s job is to promote total free speech. Being in a college is like being on the job — the administration (or boss) has an obligation to create an environment that is not threatening or oppressive such that it affects the main purpose of the place (learning, making widgets, whatever).

    I totally disagree. The mission of a university is far more intimately tied to notions of the free expression of ideas, even highly controversial ones, than perhaps any other institution in society. It certainly can’t be compared to a plant making widgets. One of the primary purposes is to encourage the clash of ideas, to expose students to new ideas and ways of thinking about things. That is the mission of higher education. If you manage to get a degree without ever being exposed to ideas that you find offensive, I would suggest you haven’t really been to college at all you’ve just gone through a job training program.

  6. #6 Steve Reuland
    February 23, 2006

    I’m always very skeptical of “trends” that consist of a handful of anecdotes like this. There are thousands of 4-year colleges in America, and the vast majority of them which are apparently having no problem with the cartoons you just don’t hear about.

    As for the dorm thing, I can say from personal experience that while a university may be very liberalized, the dorms are run by nazis. You do as they say or you live elsewhere; there’s always a waiting list and they can replace you.

  7. #7 Matthew
    February 23, 2006

    haha, does anyone over 30 get that reference?

  8. #8 Ed Brayton
    February 23, 2006

    Steve-

    I didn’t suggest it was a trend or a dominant situation. In fact, I can name more colleges where the caricatures were printed in the school newspaper without an incident than those where there was a problem. But it’s still worth noting that there are some colleges who clearly don’t understand the notion of free speech.

  9. #9 Corkscrew
    February 24, 2006

    ANyone know what the situation is with copyright on those caricatures? Just curious.

  10. #10 Sastra
    February 24, 2006

    Corkscrew:
    This is what the Institute for Humanist Studies’ Humanist Network News recently wrote on the subject of the comics’ copyright:

    “Last week, HNN attempted to contact the Jyllands-Posten to request permission to reprint some of the now infamous Danish Muhammad cartoons. The paper did not respond in time for publication. So we made the decision to publish a thumbnail version of the original and complete Jyllands-Posten page featuring the cartoons. We felt that using this image alongside editorial content constituted fair use.

    On Monday the Jyllands-Posten notified HNN that the cartoonists, not the newspaper, hold the rights. The cartoonists can be contacted via the Dansk Journalistforbund.

    Many newspapers and Web sites reproduced the images without obtaining the cartoonist’s permission. The Dansk Journalistforbund (Danish Union of Journalists) and the 12 cartoonists issued a statement declaring that they will not take legal action for previous copyright infringements. However, they have issued guidelines for republishing the work.

    The statement also reads: “All media wishing to use one or more of the twelve cartoons must pay a fee for this use to the special cartoonists� fund set up for the purpose. ‘It is important for us and the cartoonists to emphasise that all use of the cartoons must be paid for,’ says Mogens Blicher Bjerreg�rd.”

    The cost to reproduce a single cartoon is �250 (or $298 US). According to the cartoonists’ guidelines, the fees will finance an international prize for cartoonists, “to be awarded to a recognised and committed cartoonist who in the form of satirical cartoons has focused on important societal matters � such as for example freedom of speech.”

    In a Feb. 2. open letter (PDF) to the international media, the Dansk Journalistforbund asked media managers and publishers to report how many times they have reproduced the cartoons and to submit the fee.”

  11. #11 Raging Bee
    February 24, 2006

    Colleges have SOME obligation to create a place where teaching and exchange of ideas can happen in a civil and adult manner; and to set an example of mutually-respectful adult behavior. That’s part of what they exist to teach.

    HOWEVER, in the cases you cite, they went WAY too far, especially by taking down NEWS ARTICLES from public view. That’s just spineless. I used to tape articles and editorials on things that interested me to my dorm door, and no one seemed to have a problem with it.

    PS on copyright issues: the cartoons are now NEWS! The media are OBLIGATED to print them in order to give their readers the full story about all the recent violence and threats coming from the Muslim world. This fact should override all copyright considerations. (Although I do find it amusing to ask who has the copyright on that fake cartoon made from a bad copy of a photo of a French guy with the pig snout…)

  12. #12 oolong
    February 24, 2006

    I think the Bee has it right. I surely wasn’t saying (I think Ed got me wrong) that students shouldn’t be exposed to all ideas, no matter how controversial. They should. College is partly *about* having your conceptions about the world challenged. I totally agree with Ed on this. But the caveat is: _in an educational context_. In a classroom (and in university colloquia, speaker series, etc) all views should be examined, no matter how unsettling. But colleges _also_ have a responsibility to create an environment in which those ideas can be engaged in an effective manner.

    In an extreme case, I would not allow, as an administrator, a student to hang a Nazi flag on their dorm room door, though if someone wanted to display on on their private house, that would be their right, and I’d defend it. The Nazi flag creates an oppressive context in which students will not feel open to discussing differing views. Similarly, although I want students to discuss homosexuality (in a given class on ethics, say) openly and from all points of view, I’m not going to allow one student to say “fags suck” or “I hate homos they are mutations”. There are civil ways to make both points and have them add to the discussion. So not *all* speech is allowed in the classroom. Sure, the line is hard to draw on what cases create oppressive contexts and which ones don’t. And when you censor you should not take the job lightly and use it rarely. But that doesn’t mean that university shouldn’t do it ever. Educators have an obligation ethically to create civil and education friendly environments.

    My 2c anwyay.

  13. #13 Ed Brayton
    February 24, 2006

    The problem, oolong, is not merely that it’s difficult to decide which views expressed in which manner constitute an “oppressive context”; it is that there is no objective means at all of deciding what such a context is. It inevitably requires picking and choosing whose offense to take seriously. It is common, for instance, for college campuses to have an area where people get on their soapbox, literally, and speak out. The people walking by generally ignore them, while others show up to argue with them and call them names. At Michigan, it’s called the Quad and anyone who has been there has run the gauntlet of speakers.

    One guy may be ranting about the evils of Israel and their oppression of the Palestinians, railing against the “Zionist Occupied Government” in Washington and demanding that the university divest itself of any financial ties to Israel. Many Jews would find this highly offensive and even threatening. Is this an “oppressive context”?

    Another person may be preaching the opposite, that the Jews are God’s chosen people and woe to they who preach harm against them. God will surely smite those who rise up against his chosen people. To a Palestinian student, this is little more than a justification for repression and violence against him and his family. Is this an “oppressive context”?

    Another person may be preaching from the Bible, railing against whores and harlots and homosexuals, calling them evil and demon-possessed and warning them that they will all burn in hell for their sins. Gay students would likely find this highly offensive and even frightening. Is this an “oppressive context”?

    Another person may be a marxist, raving about the evils of capitalism and the need to overthrow the imperialist dogs who run the world. To someone who escaped from a Soviet gulag, this is highly offensive and evokes their worst fears. Is this an “oppressive context”?

    On the other hand, someone else may be a Randian, preaching the virtues of free markets and unfettered capitalism. To the marxist, who views capitalism as inherently oppressive and destructive of human dignity, this is terribly offensive. Is this an “oppressive context”?

    One could go on with such examples all day long. And I’ll go back to my core belief, which is that a person should be free to say, do or think something as long as it is possible to imagine a world in which they would be free to say, do or think it. The proper remedy for stupid or offensive ideas is to prove them wrong by exercising one’s own free speech. If a person cannot put up a satire of Muhammed up on his dorm room door, what about a student who wears a t-shirt that says, “What would Jesus do…for a Klondyke bar?” Is one group’s sensibilities to be protected but another ignored? The only way to avoid arbitrarily picking and choosing which group’s offended feelings deserve protection and which don’t is to eliminate the very idea of free expression on campuses, to forbid anyone from saying anything that another person might potentially be offended by. And at that point, the college campus loses its raison d’etre and becomes useless.

  14. #14 oolong
    February 24, 2006

    Ed,

    I understand your point and I truly appreciate the difficulty of being able to say what will legitimately contribute to an unhealthy educational environment and what will not. But I don’t think this entails that nothing falls into that set of things. In fact, this difficulty (and because censorship is prima facie a bad thing) is why I think the censor “button” should be used very rarely and with extreme care — because I am sensitive to your concerns. However, I would still argue that educators have an ethical obligation not to allow hostile environments to exist, since they are not helpful to the free exchange of ideas so important in such contexts. Is this difficult to do correctly, yes. Harmful to the idea of college, I don’t think so. But again, that’s just my 2c.

  15. #15 dan7000
    February 24, 2006

    Ed, why no distinction between public and private institutions?

    In your post, you discuss examples at two private institutions (I think U. Chi. is private). And then in your comments, you give an example of a free-speech “soapbox” at a public institution (U. Mich.). While I think it’s obvious that the *government* (public school administrators) cannot censor speech at all, I think it’s far less obvious that a private corporation cannot put limits on what is said on its own property.

    I think that distinction has to be made. However, I think that, although less obvious, it is true that private universities cannot limit speech on campus, at least in areas that constitute an extension of the public commons.

    In State v Schmid, the NJ supreme court found that Princeton could not prohibit political pamphleteering on its campus, because it violated the state free speech protections. And in Marsh v Alabama, a company town could not prohibit religious speech on its sidewalks, because of the 1st amendment, even though the sidewalks were private priperty. In both cases, the space (Princeton’s Quad and the sidewalk) was open to the public.

    I think you have a much tougher argument in a private dorm. Would you argue that an apartment house manager cannot have content-based restrictions on what people can put up on the doors of their apartments? What if the renters had agreed to such restrictions as part of their lease?

    Fun stuff.

  16. #16 Ed Brayton
    February 24, 2006

    dan7000:

    Legally, there is a clear distinction between a public university and a private one. I don’t know if Century College is public or private. If they are private, then legally they can make the rules as they see fit. That doesn’t mean I can’t criticize them for it, of course. As for the University of Chicago, I thought it was a public university but that appears to be wrong. It is a private school founded by John D. Rockefeller and the American Baptist Education Society. So again, legally they do have the right to censor but may still be criticized for it.

  17. #17 Roman Werpachowski
    February 24, 2006

    Ed,

    what if the guy put a picture of a small kid being raped on his door? Would you still defend him?

    1. Would you recommend the college to let it go, too?
    2. Would you consider it proper for another student to tear down the picture from the door?

    I am sure the answer to 1. will be “no” and also expect that the answer to 2. will be “no”. Well, what are the alternatives? The alternative is to boycott this person, chant “you are a moron” at his door, etc. Don’t you see that in this way, you create an unbalanced situation? For this guy, it takes almost zero effort to piss people off. But people have to go to much greater trouble to amply respond.

    Another thing: a dorm is a place which is a substitute of home for students. I would expect, were I been living there, to have some kind of relative peace and comfort. It’s not like it is a public square when you can shout whatever you like. Where is the border between having your ideas challenged and having someone else’s ideas forced down your throat?

  18. #18 Ed Brayton
    February 24, 2006

    Roman wrote:

    what if the guy put a picture of a small kid being raped on his door? Would you still defend him?

    Do you honestly think this is a difficult question? Of course that’s not okay. I can’t imagine I really need to explain the distinction between this and the sort of expression we’re discussing in this thread. And if I do need to explain it, I doubt it would be worth the trouble.

    Another thing: a dorm is a place which is a substitute of home for students. I would expect, were I been living there, to have some kind of relative peace and comfort. It’s not like it is a public square when you can shout whatever you like. Where is the border between having your ideas challenged and having someone else’s ideas forced down your throat?

    Where would YOU draw the line? Let’s say a student posts a bible verse on his door saying that the Jews are God’s chosen people. Is that offensive to non-Jews, declaring them to be second class citizens? It certainly could be interpreted that way, and many do. Let’s say a student posts a Bible verse that says that homosexuality is an abomination. Is that over the line? What if he posts the verse in Leviticus that says they should be put to death? Is that over the line? What if someone puts up something saying that the Bible is a bigoted, hateful book because it urges the death penalty for homosexuals? Is that over the line? You either have to allow all of them or ban all of them because otherwise you’re making subjective judgements on whose offense is more important.

  19. #19 Roman Werpachowski
    February 24, 2006

    I think I would rather ban those which are too, ehm, prominent. That is, someone can hang a poster on the door, but not necessarily a giant flag taking whole corridor wall. I want to have the freedom not to look at what I find offensive to me.

    Besides, if the university wants to ban racist speech, it is free to do so. In Europe, universitites are autonomous — they to much extent govern themselves.

  20. #20 Roman Werpachowski
    February 24, 2006

    Roman wrote:

    what if the guy put a picture of a small kid being raped on his door? Would you still defend him?

    Do you honestly think this is a difficult question? Of course that’s not okay. I can’t imagine I really need to explain the distinction between this and the sort of expression we’re discussing in this thread. And if I do need to explain it, I doubt it would be worth the trouble.

    Oh, of course I’ve chosen an absurdly extreme example. But the problem you have mentioned later on (“where do we draw the line”) appears here as well. If it’s not OK to put a picture of a raped kid, is it OK to put a picture of a dead Iraq kid as a protest against the war? If yes, why the distinction? Is it moral to use someone’s death to make a political statement? If no, is it not censorship and an attempt to hide away the brutal side of war?

    Life and moral issues ain’t as easy as they seem and sometimes even the Founding Fathers won’t give you an easy answer.

  21. #21 Roman Werpachowski
    February 24, 2006

    Where would YOU draw the line?

    I want to have the freedom not to listen and not to look. And I would like to have the opportunity to respond in a similar manner to what someone is using against me. That is, I think it would be unfair for Ted Turner to use CNN to say “Roman Werpachowski from Poland is a moron”, since I don’t have the possibility to respond to it in a similarly powerful way.

  22. #22 Ed Brayton
    February 24, 2006

    Roman wrote:

    Besides, if the university wants to ban racist speech, it is free to do so. In Europe, universitites are autonomous — they to much extent govern themselves.

    In the US, this is only true of private universities. If it is a public university, funded by the government, then it falls under the same rules all government entities do and it cannot violate the first amendment.

    Oh, of course I’ve chosen an absurdly extreme example. But the problem you have mentioned later on (“where do we draw the line”) appears here as well. If it’s not OK to put a picture of a raped kid, is it OK to put a picture of a dead Iraq kid as a protest against the war? If yes, why the distinction? Is it moral to use someone’s death to make a political statement? If no, is it not censorship and an attempt to hide away the brutal side of war?

    The example you chose isn’t just extreme, it’s not an example of what we’re talking about at all. The mere possession of a picture of a child being raped is illegal. The person who posted it would be arrested for possession of child pornography, and rightly so. As for a dead Iraqi kid, yes that would be perfectly acceptable (though I don’t know why you bothered to specify a kid, it would make no difference to the scenario). The question of whether it’s “moral” to use pictures of dead people to make a political point is irrelevant. What matters is whether the government has the authority to prevent you from making such an argument and in the US the law clearly says no.

    I want to have the freedom not to listen and not to look.

    And in some contexts, you have that freedom; in others, you don’t.

  23. #23 Roman Werpachowski
    February 24, 2006

    And in some contexts, you have that freedom; in others, you don’t.

    I’ve never been to Guantanamo and don’t intend to.

  24. #24 Ed Brayton
    February 24, 2006

    Roman wrote:

    I’ve never been to Guantanamo and don’t intend to.

    I’m not talking about Guantanamo. If you’re in a public forum, then the only way you can exercise your right not to hear or see speech that you find offensive is to leave. If you’re on your own property, of course, you can make the other person leave. But in the college quad example that I discussed earlier, where there is an open public forum where people engage in advocacy, you simply do not have any right not to hear an idea that offends you if you choose to be there.

  25. #25 Roman Werpachowski
    February 24, 2006

    But in the college quad example that I discussed earlier, where there is an open public forum where people engage in advocacy, you simply do not have any right not to hear an idea that offends you if you choose to be there.

    We’re talking about a college dorm. A place people try to call their home for a few years.

    What you said applies, I don’t know, to the college main hall.

  26. #26 Krauze
    February 24, 2006

    Let me just add to what Ed said: Posting child pornography on your dorm room door causes actual, psychological harm – both generally, by creating a market for abusing children, and specifically for the child being depicted. Posting an offensive picture of Mohammed doesn’t.

  27. #27 Wowbagger
    February 24, 2006

    “A good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.”
    Ironically, that statement was made in a report issued by the University of Chicago in 1967. How times have changed.

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