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The Cartoon Controversy Hits Home

The uproar over the Danish cartoons that satirized Muhammad has come to American college campuses, pitting free speech against cultural sensitivity.

By Monica Davey in Champaign, Ill.



By the time the University of Illinois student newspaper republished cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammad on February 9, the images had already provoked a worldwide fury marked by violent protests in several countries. On the university's Champaign campus, the response to the cartoons' publication in The Daily Illini was both immediate and sharply divided.

Muslim students and others held a protest, saying they were stunned and hurt. Some members of The Daily Illini staff said they were furious, and the publisher announced that the editor in chief and opinions-page editor had been suspended, pending an investigation.

"This has gotten crazy," says Acton H. Gorton, 25, the suspended editor in chief who decided to run 6 of the 12 Muhammad cartoons even though he says he found them "bigoted and insensitive."

Gorton received calls for his resignation but a deluge of praise as well: "We did this to raise a healthy dialogue about an important issue that is in the news and so that people would learn more about Islam. Now, I'm basically fired."

The publication of the cartoons has set off a painful debate, in the U.S. and abroad, pitting freedom of speech against sensitivity to other cultures.

Islamic teachings forbid the depiction of the prophet, Muhammad, and in many parts of the Muslim world the cartoons have sparked outrage. In Nigeria, 100 people died in three days of rioting over the cartoons. There were also deaths in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Lebanon, where the Danish and Norwegian embassies were set on fire by angry mobs in early February.

Reaction on Campus

Most major American newspapers, including The New York Times, have not run the cartoons, which were first published to little notice in a Danish newspaper last September. It wasn't until they were reprinted by Norwegian papers in January, and then in several other European countries, that the controversy in the Muslim world really ignited.

But on college campuses, student journalists are still grappling with the issue, saying the choice of most of the nation's newspapers not to publish makes theirs even more crucial. In addition to the University of Illinois, student publications at the University of Wisconsin, Harvard University, Northern Illinois University, and Illinois State University have published some of the cartoons. Every-where, the issue has prompted controversy.

At the University of Wisconsin, The Badger Herald ran one of the cartoons that portrayed Muhammad with a turban in the shape of a bomb. "Universally, we found the cartoon to be repugnant," says Mac VerStandig, the paper's editor in chief. "But we believe that there was a certain endangerment of free speech here, especially given the general prudishness of the American press. We believe our readers are mature enough to look at these images."

At the University of Illinois, angry phone calls began within hours of the cartoons' publication. "I was in disbelief that they would do this," says Shaz Kaiseruddin, a third-year law student and president of the Muslim Student Association. "That our own student-based newspaper would be so ignorant and disrespectful."

Producing any image of Muhammad is considered blasphemous by many Muslims, and reproducing such anti-Muslim images, she says, revealed no understanding of the pain that it would cause.

'What's next?'

Richard Herman, the chancellor of the University of Illinois, sent a letter criticizing the newspaper, which is published independently. In part, it said, "I believe that the D.I. could have engaged its readers in legitimate debate about the issues surrounding the cartoons' publication in Denmark without publishing them. It is possible, for instance, to editorialize about pornography without publishing pornographic pictures."

In the days that followed, the newspaper ran an apology, held conversations with Muslim students, and promised more complete, nuanced coverage on the cartoon issue. But many students say they are angry not because the newspaper published the images but because it doubted that choice afterward.

"I was absolutely crushed to see that the editors were removed," says Cody Kay, 18. "What happened to freedom of speech? If we start saying we can't look at things, what's next? Our books?"

Gorton, the suspended Daily Illini editor, says he wishes he had printed the cartoons with more context and more explanation, but he doesn't regret his decision to run them: "My first obligation is to the readers. This is news."