It seems as though every time you turn around there is a situation at UNC-Chapel Hill involving the First Amendment. This week’s topic – a controversial cartoon printed by The Daily Tar Heel that depicted the Prophet Mohammad — led to an uproar. University officials and the UNC-Chapel Hill Muslim Student Association said that the paper was “insensitive” to publish the cartoon.
The cartoon showed Mohammad between a window through which Danish flags could be seen and another window depicting a terrorist attack, and saying “They may get me from my bad side … but they show me from my worst.” The author meant to make the point that Islam has the bad features of intolerance and violence. The Muslim Student Association stated that the cartoon offended members of the Muslim community on campus. UNC-Chapel Hill Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Margaret Jablonski said the cartoon was “hurtful” and Chancellor James Moeser said the paper should apologize.
Has the DTH really done something bad here?
Jablonski and Moeser contend that The Daily Tar Heel must be respectful of the ideas and beliefs of all those who attend class at UNC-Chapel Hill. Yet, The Daily Tar Heel merely criticized Islam for the tendency of some of its followers to act violently. Why should the paper apologize for making such an observation? There is truth to it. Are Jablonski and Moeser saying that no one should mention this fact about Islam? Are they saying that no one should write, say, or draw anything that could be hurtful to anyone on campus?
It is difficult to see how The Daily Tar Heel was in the wrong. Its “sin,” if you believe Jablonski and the Muslim Student Association, was to publish a cartoon that offended a segment of the population at UNC-Chapel Hill. But a campus – or any – newspaper is supposed to report facts and discuss events. In doing so, it is apt to make someone unhappy. A newspaper’s opinion section has the purpose of promoting ideas and fostering debate on the issues of the day. How can it do that if the editors shrink back from saying things they believe to be true just because some feelings may be hurt?
Freedom of the press means a newspaper has the right to publish words, cartoons, or photos even if they might contradict the beliefs of some. Thomas Jefferson wrote that “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Notice that he didn’t say that the press must be sensitive.
The Daily Tar Heel’s publication of the cartoon ought to foster a debate among students on the differences between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. But instead of looking at the situation as an opportunity to discuss the questions of intolerance and violence, the Muslim Student Association opted for the easy way out. They complained about the cartoon rather than making a reasoned response to it.
This episode shows a serious failing in our educational system. Students are taught to elevate their feelings over their reason. They’re taught that it’s sufficient to denounce someone for having been “insensitive” without having to prove him to have been wrong. This retreat from rationality can do no good and by choosing to rebuke the editors for printing the cartoon, UNC officials have hastened it.
The fact that members of the Muslim Student Association may feel offended is irrelevant to the larger picture of our First Amendment rights. If we are offended by something we read, hear, or see, we can always walk away, put down the paper, or turn off the television. Or, better yet, we can argue that the item is false and try to convince others to see things our way. That is the way to earn respect, and the only way to get others to take you seriously.
Let us hope that the next time there is a clash of ideas at UNC – or any other university in America – administrators and student groups will act differently than they have in this instance. Higher education is supposed to promote critical thinking, not whimpering over hurt feelings.
Shannon Blosser is a staff writer with the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.