Charlie Hebdo event poster spurs debate on censorship

Haley Hansen

University of Minnesota faculty members were instructed earlier this year to take down event posters that recreated a Charlie Hebdo magazine cover, spurring a campus-wide discussion on free speech within academia.
 
School leaders received complaints on the image, which depicts a caricature of Muhammad with the word “censored” stamped across it, prompting the request for removal. They later clarified that the request — which was made after the event was held — wasn’t mandatory. 
 
In late January, the University’s College of Liberal Arts sponsored the panel advertised on the fliers that discussed issues regarding free speech, following the Charlie Hebdo office attacks in Paris. Posters promoting the event appeared in several CLA departments leading up to and after the event.
 
Eight people contacted the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action to express their concerns with the college’s use of the image, calling it “blasphemous” and harmful to Muslims. The office began an investigation into the issue.
 
EOAA also received a petition signed by about 260 Muslim students, staff members and people outside of the University.
 
The CLA Human Resources department contacted faculty members and college leaders a few weeks after the event to notify them of the complaints and requested that the remaining flyers be removed.
 
Several faculty members expressed concern that the request infringed upon their freedom of speech. 
 
According to the EOAA’s report, panel organizers said they decided to use the image because it related to the event’s focus on discussing free speech and the representation of Muhammad.
 
A few days after the human resource department sent its email, CLA Dean John Coleman sent another to faculty members. His email said the posters’ message may have been misconstrued and that faculty members and CLA leadership could make the ultimate decision to keep the flyers up.
 
In late March, the EOAA completed its investigation and found that the use of the image was not in violation of University anti-harassment policies. As part of its findings, the office recommended that Coleman voice disapproval of the flyer.
 
Coleman said he will meet with concerned faculty members in the coming weeks to further discuss the issue.
 
Defining free speech on a college campus
 
Coleman said CLA prioritizes the right of its students and staff to discuss their viewpoints freely on campus.
 
“Even material that’s going to be upsetting is still worthy of being shared and being discussed,” he said. 
 
Health services management freshman Aisha Hassan signed the petition against the caricature’s use. 
 
Though she wasn’t offended by the image, she said she thinks it perpetuates Islamophobia.
 
Hassan said she has the right to be offended by the image, just as the event organizers have the right to use it.  
 
“That’s one of the positive sides of living in a free society,” Hassan said. 
 
Coleman said the University is responsible for creating an environment where one person’s speech doesn’t infringe on another’s.
 
Catherine Sevcenko, an attorney and the associate director of litigation at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said creating a respectful environment, like the one the University aims to uphold, requires openly discussing topics that may be controversial, rather than avoiding them altogether.
 
“You’re not going to be producing ideas if you’re saying things that are safe and everyone agrees,” she said. “The constitution doesn’t protect you from being uncomfortable.”