The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Colleen Flaherty (Inside Higher Ed) reports (see also this Minnesota Daily story). This is very troubling stuff, involving a leading public university and a demand to take down posters describing a serious academic panel. Here's my understanding of the matter, from the Inside Higher Ed story (which you should read) and from other sources:
1. Several professors put together a panel on the Charlie Hebdo murders; the panel was promoted with the flyer quoted above, which includes the cover of the first post-murder issue, with a "CENSORED" stamp added on top of it. "The flyer was published on the various unit sponsors' websites and elsewhere on campus." The event, according to the participants, drew a lot of attendees, and apparently wasn't disrupted in any way.
2. But then, after the event, "eight people—four students, a retired professor, an adjunct professor and two others from outside the university—contacted equal opportunity personnel to express concern that the flyer 'featured a depiction of Muhammad, which they and many other Muslims consider blasphemous and/or insulting.'" The university also got a petition from 260 students and staff members, plus about 45 others, which condemned the flyer as "very offensive" and said it "violated our religious identity and hurt our deeply held religious affiliations for our beloved prophet (peace be upon him). Knowing that these caricatures hurt and are condemned by 1.75 billion Muslims in the world, the university should not have recirculated/reproduced them."
3. Now so far, that was just complaints from the public, who are free to complain. But the next move was the University's:
The [Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action] said in its summary for the dean, the poster had "significant negative repercussions." And given the "large-scale" global protests against the image in question, "the organizers knew or should have known" that their decision to reprint the image "would offend, insult and alienate some not-insignificant proportion of the university's Muslim community on the basis of their religious identity," the office added. It said the hurt was heightened by the fact that the insulting speech came from those with "positional power" at Minnesota.
Consequently, the office wrote, "university members should condemn insults made to a religious community in the name of free speech." Equal opportunity administrators told [John Coleman, dean of the College of Liberal Arts,] that he had the "opportunity to lead in creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for Muslim students by adding your own speech to the dialogue advocating for civility and respect by [college] faculty." The office recommended that Coleman communicate the college's disapproval of the flyer and "otherwise use your leadership role to repair the damage that the flyer caused to the relationship between [the college] and Muslim students and community members."
A public university dean's condemning a flyer for reproducing an image that was directly related to the event, and that was of international significance—simply because the image was, in a word, blasphemous—would, I think, be a pretty bad message. (I haven't seen evidence that Coleman acted on the message. UPDATE: The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports that "John Coleman, the liberal-arts dean, said Tuesday he has no intention of following that recommendation. 'I really think the important thing here is to affirm and reaffirm the importance of open debate,' he said in an interview.") But, according to the event organizers, there was more:
According to a heavily redacted series of emails between Coleman, various faculty members and equal opportunity administrators provided to Inside Higher Ed by the university, staff members received a message from the college human resources office on Feb. 13. The email includes a link to the digital flyer, noting that the free speech event "took place several weeks ago." It continues: "Due to complaints about the image contained in the link, [the equal opportunity office] has requested that the image be removed from any [college] communication in all forms. If your unit still has active links to this page, or image, please remove the image. Please remove any posters on your unit bulletin boards or any other hard copies of flyers that may be still around."
So public university administrators were instructing staff members—"please" in an e-mail from administrators to staff members sounds like an instruction, not a request—to take down images related to academic events, because those images are seen by some as blasphemous. This was not just some general rule that all promotional flyers be removed from physical bulletin boards after the event was done, so people can better focus on upcoming events. This was an order to remove material precisely because of the images that it contains, images that members of one religion find offensive.
[UPDATE: The Minneapolis Star-Tribune likewise describes this as an order that was reversed by Dean Coleman: "When word of the complaints got out, a college administrator sent out an e-mail asking that the fliers be taken down. Coleman, the dean, said he promptly reversed that order when he learned about it. 'I needed to make it clear in my position that our support for academic freedom and freedom of speech is absolutely paramount,' he said."]
4. Fortunately, faculty seem to have fought back, and Coleman sent "a clarification letter of sorts" three days later,
saying that the earlier email from human resources "conveyed that there had been complaints about the continued presence of the posters and the image and intended to suggest that removing the advertising for a past event might be a possible response to some of the complaints that had been received. Whether you decide to remove the advertisement is your call."
The dean wrote that academic freedom and free speech were "paramount values" for him personally, and that his own research in political science has often touched on those issues. That said, he concluded, "With the event now past, should [the poster] remain online, given the context of genuine hurt some individuals express about the image? The reasonable people, each an ardent free speech supporter, could hold some different views on that question, especially as it intersects with our desire to improve upon and deepen a welcoming campus climate."
So it appeared that the posters could indeed be displayed, despite the earlier message from the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. And when I talked to one of the participants, Prof. William Beeman, chair of anthropology, he said that he didn't expect the controversy to deter future events (and flyers) of this sort, because University of Minnesota faculty members historically been willing to fight for their academic freedom. Nonetheless, it seems to me that, once faculty—and staff and students—see responses such as that from the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, at least some people are going to get the message: If you're putting on an event at the University of Minnesota, and the flyers contain images that some may see as blasphemous, you're risking a good deal of grief.
5. To return to Prof. Beeman, this time quoted in the Inside Higher Ed story:
Beeman said he saw the events at Minnesota as part of a growing movement on college campuses "to enjoin faculty from saying anything that might hurt somebody's feelings, or that might offend someone."
For example, he said, he was teaching a course that mentioned witchcraft—a technical term in his discipline—and was approached by three Wiccans after class who said they were hurt by the term. Another student in another course on human evolution failed and then blamed her performance on the class material on race—namely that it isn't a biologically solid concept—only to take it over again and fail once more, he said. There are also increased calls for trigger warnings and big pushes to block controversial convocation speakers from appearing on colleges campuses across the country. (Indeed, in one of the redacted emails to an unknown recipient, Coleman mentions possibly publishing a trigger warning with remaining copies of the poster. "I not infrequently will come across news sites that will provide the option of seeing/hearing something that might be considered difficult for some viewers/listeners," he wrote.)
6. Indeed, this incident shows just how broad the movements to suppress alleged blasphemy are, even in the U.S. This wasn't a fringe group of anti-Islam political activists putting out the flyers; these were people squarely in the middle of the academic Establishment. This wasn't a bunch of cartoonists putting out material that, viewed narrowly, might be seen by some as juvenile, nonsubstantive, or gratuitously offensive; these were academics putting on a substantive academic event with a flyer that is clearly and directly tied to the content of the event, and that depicts an image that has undoubted historical significance.
To be sure, I think the speech of fringe groups and juvenile cartoonists is protected by the First Amendment and by academic freedom principles—but even if you disagree, or think that this sort of speech should be generally constitutionally protected but excluded from academic institutions or condemned by standards of good manners, here we are far removed from those fringes, and squarely in the core of serious academic discussion on hugely important matters. Yet some public university administrators still seem to have felt comfortable trying to take down such speech, and, I suspect, trying to prevent it in the future. Such a reaction, I think, needs to be firmly fought, and sharply condemned.