News from the Campuses

Ben Isserlis, Dan Riley, Debbie Goddard, Ed Beck, Justin Trottier

Across the Midwest: ‘Draw Muhammad’ Protest Sparks Discussion, Profanity, but No Violence

In May, three Center for Inquiry/On Campus-affiliated groups organized activism campaigns in reaction to threats made by against South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The radical Muslim Web site posted a statement warning the two entertainers that they would likely “wind up like [murdered filmmaker] Theo Van Gogh” if they criticized the prophet Muhammad on their Comedy Central show. The Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers (AAF) at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign; the Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison; and the Northwestern University Secular Humanists for Inquiry and Freethought (SHIFT) organized campuswide campaigns during which each group chalked stick figures onto school sidewalks with the name “Muhammad” written next to them.

“We wanted to start a conversation,” said the leaders of SHIFT. The group, according to a written statement, was “standing up for our basic freedoms to express ourselves,” to let everyone “know that we live in a community in which anyone can express an idea freely.”

“AAF has wrestled with its collective conscience,” wrote AAF leader Edward Clint. “In the end, it has decided that standing up against enemies of freedom is worth the discomfort of a few who are innocent and our friends.”

At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, AHA members soon found many of their drawings altered by members of the Muslim Student Association. AHA leader Chris Calvey observed that boxing gloves were added to some of the stick figures, with “Ali” appended after “Muhammad.”

According to SHIFT members, much of “the offense taken to [the] drawings of the Prophet Muhammad has more to do with the perceived intent of the drawings than with the drawings themselves.” The group recognized that many Muslims have faced societal difficulties since September 11, 2001, but feels that “walking on eggshells with regards to portraying Muhammad only serves to further ‘otherize’ the Muslim community.”

While there were disagreements among members of the student body about the tactics of these drawings—one agnostic UIUC student who disagreed with AHA’s tactics chalked “Chris Calvey’s mom fucks cows,” for example—no violence took place.

“I’m not insulted by speculations about what kind of animals my mother has intimate relations with,” Chris Calvey stated. “And even if I was insulted by these or other things . . . too bad. Offense can go both ways.” Society, he maintains, must “eventually come to the agreement that no religion, person, idea, or sacred cow should be granted immunity from criticism.”

Stanford: Bucking the Ban

The Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) at Stanford University held a Banned Book Read-out on October 2, 2009. Inviting cosponsorship from both secular and religious campus and community groups, AHA! hosted the read-out during the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week.

Drawing upon the voices of numerous faculty, students, and staff (including a few clergy!), the event filled Stanford’s White Plaza with prose from several classic works, as members of the different cosponsoring groups took to the mike to read passages from some of their favorite banned and challenged books. Of Mice and Men, And Tango Makes Three, and Huckleberry Finn all made appearances, joining the blasphemous Bertrand Russell on God and Religion and the ever-popular Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone—long reviled by religious conservatives worldwide for advocating “witchcraft,” “satanism,” and unnamed “demonic powers.”

In an interview with The Stanford Review, an independent conservative student-run newspaper at Stanford University, AHA! President Joe Foley dove into the heart of the matter: “The First Amendment protects freedom of speech from government intervention, but I think in some parts of our culture there is still a pervasive attitude that some books just shouldn’t be read. That’s really what we’re trying to fight—this attitude that information or literature can be dangerous.”

University at Buffalo: Changing the Debate

Blasphemy Day International provided for another free expression campus controversy at the University at Buffalo, a campus of the State University of New York. There, Blasphemy Day event flyers by the UB Freethinkers displaying one of the infamous Danish Muhammad cartoons, next to satirical images of Jesus Christ with a raptor head and Monty Python’s famous depiction of Yahweh in the clouds, drew an outraged reaction from the university’s Muslim Student Association (MSA).

MSA members tore down the event flyers as they came across them and demanded that all flyers be removed from campus immediately, appealing directly to—and finding support from—the UB Student Association president at the time (who was also an MSA member). Claiming that the inclusion of the prophet Muhammad was a unique offense incomparable to the other images, and claiming that by dealing with religion the group had trespassed “beyond free speech,” the Student Association demanded that the UB Freethinkers self-censor in the future—or else the SA would do it for them.

The UB Freethinkers drew on a broad base of support from progressive campus political and activism clubs, as well as from non-Islamic religious student groups with whom they had cooperated in the past, to mount a defense of the flyers, Blasphemy Day, and free expression.

Using tools such as their blog and Facebook presence, combined with writing a letter to UB’s student newspaper describing the context of Blasphemy Day and the related history of the Muhammad cartoons in relation to free expression, the UB Freethinkers were able to turn opinion on campus against the idea of censorship. Letters, e-mails, and the swaying of the school newspaper’s editorial board in support of the UB Freethinkers’ stand as unbiased “equal opportunity offenders” had an impact on the Student Association and its president, who quietly backed down from demands to censor.

Metropolitan State College of Denver/University of Colorado–Denver: Good Words and Good Works

The Metro State Atheists at Metropolitan State College of Denver and the UCD Atheists at the University of Colorado–Denver teamed up to create a “Food for Freethought” event on their shared campus. Inspired to combine the Campaign for Free Expression’s educational mission with a social service project, leaders Joel Guttormson and Sara Diaz decided to host an exchange of freethought-related books for nonperishable food items.

In the months leading up to the event, the groups solicited donations of freethought-related and previously banned or challenged books from local and national freethought organizations, as well as from supporters online. On September 29 and October 1, 2009, during Banned Books Week, group members tabled on campus, collecting nonperishable food items and donations in exchange for the donated freethought and challenged books. The groups managed to collect over 250 food items for the Food Bank of the Rockies.

Canada: What’s Sauce for the Goose . . .

In Canada, attempts to stifle campus debates on controversial issues, notably abortion, were among the issues prompting the launch of CFI in Ontario’s Campaign for Free Expression in 2008. The Campaign’s impact on campuses across Canada was in great part responsible for its expansion the following year into CFI/ Transnational’s Campaign for Free Expression.

The controversy began in May 2008, when the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), which includes as member organizations the student governments of over eighty universities and campuses, passed the following motion: “Be it resolved that member locals [of the CFS] that refuse to allow anti-choice organizations access to their resources and space be supported.” This sparked a campaign across the country to muzzle campus groups opposed to CFS ideology.

York University in Toronto was at the center of what swiftly became a national controversy. The York Federation of Students (YFS) had already voted to ban a debate on abortion. In a March 2008 issue of the student newspaper Excalibur, YFS spokesperson Kelly Holloway defended the ban, stating: “The issue is violence against women, and women in this country have a right to choose what they do with their bodies. They have a right to have an abortion, and we don’t want to validate a debate that wants to threaten that right.”

The CFI-affiliated Freethinkers, Skeptics and Atheists at York University was scheduled to defend the pro-choice position in the canceled debate. Now, group member Michael Payton became one of the loudest spokespersons defending his ideological competition’s right to be heard. “If you don’t believe in free speech for views that you hate, views that are offensive to you, then you don’t believe in free speech,” he was reported saying.

Further complicating the issue of free expression was the fact that many groups don’t just want to be heard; they also want to be seen. At the University of Calgary in Alberta, there was a multiyear fight between Campus Pro-Life (CPL) and the University of Calgary Student Union on the subject of the Genocide Awareness Project, which uses Holocaust images to compare abortion to genocide. When CPL was threatened with loss of its club status in October 2008, Eric Mathison from the University of Calgary Freethinkers published the editorial “Aborting Free Speech: Market Place of Ideas Should Be Free” in the university’s Gauntlet newspaper. “It can be tempting to support the silencing of a group that disagrees with you—in such cases it is even more important to be on our guard against bias,” Mathison wrote. “Silencing an alternative view may in fact strengthen your argument temporarily, but only until the next group demands reasonable proof. If you have lost the ability to defend your beliefs, you are guilty of the same dogmatism you seek to end.”

Not long after that, CPL was asked to cancel its Genocide Awareness Project. When CPL refused to comply, it was asked to turn its posters away from the stream of traffic. When it refused to do this too, six CPL representatives were charged with trespassing, although those charges were eventually dropped due to insufficient evidence. However, this issue is far from settled. In April 2010, eight members of CPL were again charged with a “major violation” against the University of Calgary’s nonacademic misconduct policy for the same transgression.

Meanwhile, universities ranging from McGill University in Quebec to the University of Victoria in British Columbia moved to shut down their campus pro-life clubs. Back in Ontario, the group Guelph University Life Choice was de-ratified in late 2008. One spokesperson for the student government said in an October 2008 issue of the University of Guelph student newspaper The Ontarian, “There has to be limits to free speech when it includes hate speech and limits the rights of others.”

Even granting the need for hate speech legislation, do pro-life groups really engage in hate speech? William Mount, of the CFI-affiliated Guelph Campus Skeptics, doesn’t think so. He published an editorial in his campus newspaper titled “Should We Reopen the Debate on Abortion?” calling for a more respectful debate on this issue. “All too often most of the discussion on the topic is reduced to both sides accusing each other of malevolent ends and then talking past each other,” Mount wrote. “Most of the time however, most people involved in the debate (on both sides) are nice, well meaning people. This fact needs to be acknowledged by both sides.”

While censorship in the form of legal consequences for expressing views should be extremely rare, a debate on the appropriate and effective tone for debating contentious topics is needed. It could be led by organizations like the Centre for Inquiry, which wish for productive and open exchanges on sacred issues.

Purdue: ‘Boobquake’ Goes Viral

The notion of freedom of bodily expression has also found advocates within the CFI/On Campus community. Jennifer “BlagHag” McCreight, popular blogger and former president of the Purdue University Society of Non-Theists, created a phenomenon when her “Boobquake” idea went viral.

In what began as a casual joke on her blog in response to an Iranian cleric’s proclamation that immodestly dressed women are guilty of causing earthquakes, McCreight suggested that her female readers all dress as immodestly as they were comfortable with on April 26, 2010. Spurred by the absurdity of the cleric’s brash paternalism and riding the wave of social networking, over 200,000 people joined the event page on Facebook within a matter of days. In what became a bridging of the ideas of both free expression and skepticism—applying one to fend off restrictions of the other—a test of the cleric’s religious hypothesis was on.

Surprisingly enough, although demonstrations of “immodesty” were numerous, the day came and went without cataclysmic Earth events. On McCreight’s blog, she posted charts and graphs of seismic activity around the world to show that the event did not lead to unusual activity that day. However, the holiday did manage to draw the attention of media outlets worldwide, including CNN, ABC, CBS, Fox News, The Guardian, Newsweek, Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, and even BBC Persia.

In an interview with ABC News on the response to Boobquake, McCreight explained the human impact of her experiment: “The response has been largely positive. When I started getting emails from thankful skeptics, feminists, and Iranians, I knew I had accidentally done something important. The press and celebrity acknowledgement was definitely exciting, but knowing people appreciated what I was doing meant so much more.”

And so what began as a quaint online joke ended as a profound argument against religious domination of the body’s expression—and a scientific one at that.

Ben Isserlis

Ben Isserlis is president of RIT Skeptics.

Dan Riley


Debbie Goddard

Debbie Goddard is the Vice President and Director of Campus and Community Programs as well as the Director of African Americans for Humanism at the Center for Inquiry.

Ed Beck

Ed Beck was a treasurer of UB Freethinkers.

Justin Trottier

Justin Trottier is the executive director of Centre for Inquiry in Canada.

Across the Midwest: ‘Draw Muhammad’ Protest Sparks Discussion, Profanity, but No Violence In May, three Center for Inquiry/On Campus-affiliated groups organized activism campaigns in reaction to threats made by against South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The radical Muslim Web site posted a statement warning the two entertainers that they would likely …

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