Toon Wars 2006, Canada

A Report on the Peter March Affair at Saint Mary’s University

Published in the newsletter of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship

Number 44, September 2006

Electronic version: and p. 1

Mark Mercer

Department of Philosophy

Saint Mary’s University

On Tuesday 7 February of this year [2006], Peter March, a philosophy professor at Saint Mary’s University, in Halifax, posted on his office door the set of twelve cartoons originally published in September 2005 in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, cartoons that had provoked riots and killings in some predominantly Muslim countries. Many Muslims are deeply offended by these cartoons, believing one or another of them to insult Muhammad or to slight Islam as a religion or Muslims as individuals.

Just a few hours after Dr March had posted the cartoons, Terrence Murphy, the Vice President Academic and Research of Saint Mary’s, asked Dr March to remove them. Dr March refused this request. Dr Murphy then ordered Dr March to remove them. Dr March complied.

Why did Dr Murphy order the cartoons down? According to a memo he issued on Thursday 9 February to the Saint Mary’s University community, Dr Murphy ordered the cartoons down on grounds of public safety. Dr Murphy wrote that his fear that someone might react to the presence of the cartoons with violence was well grounded given the violent reaction to the cartoons overseas. Dr Murphy=s memo is the only official account of the order to remove the cartoons.

Chuck Bridges, the Vice President External, Steven Smith, the president of the University Faculty Union, and Zach Churchill, the president of the Students’ Association, along with many others among both students and faculty, applauded Dr Murphy’s action. The university’s official reason was not, though, the only reason these officers and others gave as justification for having the cartoons removed. In statements and interviews, each mentioned one or another of the following as a sufficient justification: the presence of the cartoons harms emotionally some members of the Saint Mary’s University community; the presence of the cartoons harasses Muslim members of the university community; the presence of the cartoons creates a hostile workplace; the presence of the cartoons violates someone’s human rights (by, it would seem, expressing or fomenting hatred toward members of a group).

Indeed, in his memo giving the official reason, Dr Murphy himself made a vague remark about human rights. For his part, Colin Dodds, the President of Saint Mary’s, wrote in an email message that “we would take the same position whether it be porn, anti Jew, anti Christian etc.”, a remark that would make little sense if President Dodds thought the cartoons were ordered down solely on grounds of public safety. So far as I know, the university has not stated that none of the other justifications in the air was among its actual reasons for ordering the cartoons down.

Dr Murphy, Mr Bridges, Dr Smith, and Mr Churchill were each at pains in their statements to affirm their support for academic freedom. Each took one or more of three separate lines: 1) academic freedom was not at stake at all here, as academic freedom concerns research and teaching and office doors are not venues of research or teaching; 2) Dr March’s academic freedom was not violated, as Dr March either acted irresponsibly in posting the cartoons or the posting lacked academic significance; 3) freedom is one value among others and must sometimes be curtailed in favour of another value. Each of these officers said that though Dr March is not free to post the cartoons on his door, he is free to display them in his classroom, though Mr Churchill added that Dr March must discuss them with his students responsibly.

Some Saint Mary’s professors who agreed with Dr Murphy’s decision took a fourth line: academic freedom is best served by including among the family of scholars all who would like to belong to it, and Dr March’s insensitive or insulting gesture might well serve to exclude people from the family. One of these professors told me that Dr March should not be allowed to display the cartoons in class. (He may, though, he or she added, post them on an internet site only his class could view or give his students the address of a site on which they appear.)


There is much that is distressing or dispiriting in the affair.

1) Though Terry Murphy’s fear was hysterical and, most likely, based on a partial view of the evidence, it might well have been sincere. Nonetheless, Dr Murphy’s first and only thought was to remove the cartoons. It did not occur to him to meet whatever threat he thought they posed by increasing security or moving the display to a safer location.

2) Terry Murphy did not say in his memo, nor has he said subsequently, that he regrets that he had to order the cartoons down. He has not characterized ordering them down as the lesser of two evils. He has not said that it is a sad day when we must fear the wrath of our fellow citizens when we post cartoons. He has not shaken his head in dismay that neither the university’s security service nor the police can protect us from the would-be violent criminals in our midst.

3) The idea that what is unacceptable in the hallways of the university is acceptable in the classrooms is preposterous and dangerous. Academic freedom cannot be protected by distinguishing between hallways and classrooms. On the contrary: if posting cartoons on a door violates someone’s human rights or puts safety at risk, then displaying them in a classroom can easily do so as well.

4) Many students at Saint Mary’s and a depressingly large number of faculty members are inclined to think that because Dr March was, as they think, wrong to post the cartoons, it was right and good that they were ordered down. Many people take it as axiomatic that authorities are to act repressively to correct any wrong.

5) Many members of the Saint Mary’s community have a very poor understanding of the nature and value of academic freedom and of freedom of expression generally. This is true especially of those who find in the case no infringement of academic freedom at all, but not only of them. Dr March’s gesture hurt some feelings, but, even if it was insensitive or insulting, it put nothing much else that we care about at risk (other than, let us suppose, safety). So those who support the university’s infringement of Dr March’s academic freedom on human rights grounds, or whatever, clearly have only the shallowest commitment to academic freedom. In a minor contest with any other value, it would seem, they are happy to show freedom the door.

6) Some of my colleagues told me that had it been anyone other than Dr March who had been treated that way by the administration, he or she would have come to his or her aid. Dr March, an aggressive controversialist, simply got what was coming to him–finally. It will all blow over, I was assured, and none but the deserving will be any the worse for it. Another colleague told me that he or she didn’t want to get involved for fear of his or her career. (I think that his or her fear is entirely ungrounded.) Concern for principle aside, looking at it just pragmatically, these are dangerously imprudent attitudes for academics to live by.

7) The union declined to intervene. It determined, before any grievance was filed, that the administration did not violate Dr March’s academic freedom. (It has not explained its determination, except to say that it consulted experts.) The union has made more insinuations about harassment and human rights violations than the administration has. When Dr March sought the union’s assistance, it declined to pursue the grievance he had prepared.

8) Many professors at Saint Mary’s think that questions concerning the pedagogical soundness of Dr March’s gesture are relevant to whether the university was right to have ordered the cartoons down. Because the gesture served no good teaching function (they say, always without argument), the university was right to put an end to it, given that it caused people hurt.

9) The quality of discussion of the order to remove the cartoons has been dismal. No one who has issued a public statement expressing support of the order has supplied anything like a full or considered argument in favour of it.

Terry Murphy has not explained how events in countries very much unlike Canada made his fears reasonable. He has not explained why ordering the cartoons down was the best option available to him. He has not explained how ordering them down did not violate Dr March’s academic freedom. He has not explained how we can suppose ourselves free in the classrooms but not in the hallways. He has not clarified his suggestion that Dr March acted irresponsibly in posting them nor has he explained how Dr March’s supposed irresponsibility is relevant to his decision. He has not clarified the reference he made in his memo to human rights.

Chuck Bridges, Steven Smith, and Zach Churchill, in their public statements and their messages to me, have not even tried to explain how the offence that many Muslims and others take to Dr March’s gesture amounts to a violation of human rights, harassment, hostile workplace, or emotional harm. They simply assert that Dr March’s gesture amounts to one or another of these–or, worse, they insinuate that it does. Further, the latter two say both that Dr Murphy violated Dr March’s academic freedom justifiably in a good cause and that Dr Murphy didn’t violate it at all. Both say, without argument, that the administration is right to stop us when we act irresponsibly. Neither has argued that Dr March acted irresponsibly in posting the cartoons.

10) Officers at Saint Mary’s University don’t care that the quality of their discussion of the Peter March affair has been dismal. In postings on a public bulletin board and in email messages I have asked those responsible for ordering the cartoons down and those who support their being ordered down to clarify, explain, and justify their positions. I have laid out why I think the university was wrong to order them down. For the most part, people to whom I have sent messages have acknowledged them. But none has addressed my criticisms or arguments. They merely reiterated their confused and unargued positions.

This, to me, is terribly discouraging, perhaps the most upsetting element of the whole affair. Administrators and professors at my university are indifferent to argument.


I would add an eleventh distressing and dispiriting thing, something I think important, though it isn’t directly about academic freedom. I would add that the quality of discussion of Dr March’s gesture itself has also been dismal or, rather, almost nonexistent. Few here at Saint Mary=s have shown any interest in debating the merits of Dr March=s gesture as pedagogy or politics or a move in a discussion, except to assert that that gesture was empty. But what was Dr March up to in posting the cartoons? What were his goals? Were these goals admirable? Was posting the cartoons an effective way of reaching them? What, if anything, was ethically unsound in posting the cartoons? If posting them was ethically unsound, because, say, it offended or disturbed people, and yet was effective in reaching an admirable goal, should Dr March have posted them? —A public discussion of these matters on our campus would have been interesting and useful.

At Saint Mary’s, only in the student newspaper was the gesture itself discussed. The students’ philosophy society toyed with the idea of having Dr March explain himself publicly and face questions and criticisms, but eventually set out instead to organize a panel discussion. (Society members were unable to agree on a topic, no Muslims the society contacted would participate, and the project collapsed. To its credit, the philosophy society did later organize a successful discussion of free speech and the law.)

It was Dalhousie University, the big university down the street, that raised publicly the issue of the merits and flaws of Dr March’s gesture as a piece of teaching or a political act or a move in a discussion. In March, people at Dalhousie invited Dr March to explain himself and to respond to criticism. They assumed a task our VP Academic and Research had shirked.


The affair itself might not yet be over. In late March, students filed a complaint against Dr March. A formal Harassment and Discrimination Hearing Committee was struck. Lawyers were summoned. Money was spent. The Committee was to determine whether Dr March harassed the complainants, either in posting the cartoons or in comments or actions in the days that followed. Were the Committee to determine that he did, Dr March might be reprimanded by the university. In late June the process stalled. Those who brought the complaint might choose to restart it. If they do, another chapter in the Peter March affair will begin in mid-September.

– 30 –

A Comment on the Formal Proceedings Against Peter March

Published in The Journal, the student newspaper at Saint Mary’s

Vol 72, issue 04, Sept. 20, 2006

Mark Mercer

Department of Philosophy

Saint Mary’s University

Philosophy professor Peter March caused much outrage and hurt among Muslims and others at Saint Mary’s University last February when he posted on his office door the notorious twelve cartoons originally published in the Danish journal Jyllands-Posten. These cartoons had sparked protests and, in some Muslim nations, even riots. Many people contend that one or another them insults Islam or Muslims or Muhammad.

In late March, upset students at Saint Mary’s filed a formal complaint against Dr March. A Harassment and Discrimination Hearing Committee was struck to determine whether Dr March had harassed the complainants, either by posting the cartoons or in things he said or did in the days following. The matter has not yet been settled. If the Committee determines that he did harass the students, Dr March might in the end be reprimanded by the university.

No doubt the students were hurt and upset. But should they have brought this complaint? No, they should not have done so. No one should have sought to have Dr March officially sanctioned for his gesture or for anything he said or did following it, no matter how hurt or upset they were. Bringing a formal complaint against Dr March is entirely contrary to the life and ideals of a university.

I say this without proposing that the cartoons are less bad than the complainants think they are. Let us suppose that the cartoons are indeed deeply offensive and that Muslims at Saint Mary’s were right to feel insulted either by Dr March’s gesture or by what he said in defending his posting of them. Still, no one should have filed a formal complaint against him.

A liberal arts university, the sort of university Saint Mary’s aspires to be, is a place devoted to the life of the mind. Our passion here is to understand and appreciate the worldCand to seek to reform the world in light of that understanding and appreciation. As intellectuals, we desire to be free to think and to say whatever we want to whomever we want, and to listen to whatever or to whomever we want. We want to be able to see for ourselves what is true and what is right. Crucially, we want to live in light of the true or the right because it is the true or the right, and not because an authority requires that we do. That is one of our core characteristics. Now some ideas or manners of presenting them are disturbing or offensive, of course, but in living the life of the mind we want them discredited and abandoned, not suppressed. To bring suit against a person for expressing ideas, or even for advocating them, is, though, to ask an authority to rule those ideas out of bounds and, thereby, to suppress them. And that is to seek to deny us our ability to judge things for ourselves and to reject what is rotten on our own grounds.

No one who cares for the life or ideals of a liberal arts university, then, could properly seek to have Dr March silenced or punished for posting offensive cartoons or making offensive remarks.

Those offended by Dr March’s gesture, and those who sympathize with those offended, are entirely right to express their feelings however they see fit–so long as they seek neither to silence nor to punish others. They can and should march or speak out or post cartoons of their own. Of course, to the degree to which they live the life of the mind, they will be concerned to explain in what the offensiveness of the cartoons consists and to justify their contention that Dr March ought not have posted the cartoons or said what he did. To criticise, with arguments, and with concern for objections to one’s arguments, is just what it is to live the life of the university.

The students who initiated proceedings against Dr March, since they have chosen to be university students, aspire to live the live of the mind. But they are novices in that life, and they do not fully understand its nature or rigours. They are rookies, and we expect them to make rookie mistakes. Students need to be guided into the life of the mind by those already well acquainted with it. One sad fact of the Peter March affair at Saint Mary’s University is that students seeking to become intellectuals received very little sound guidance from their professors or the university’s administrators. Professors and administrators should have shown them how to respond properly, as competent and committed intellectuals, to insults and to offensive ideas. When the students first conceived the project to proceed formally against Dr March, professors close to these students, or the Dean of Arts, or the Vice President Academic, or, after the others had failed, the President himself, should have sat down with them and calmly explained how what they were contemplating was entirely inconsistent with their own aspirations to be intellectuals and to live the life of the mind. But no university veterans sat down with them. They were terribly ill served by our institution’s leaders.

“Is nothing more important to you than the life of the mind?” I hear my critic asking. “Is a person not to be silenced or sanctioned no matter how much harm their actions cause?”

I can imagine cases, even at a university, in which it’s better, all things considered, to silence or to sanction than not to, though I have to strain to do so. Such cases must clearly and directly put life or limb or property at risk, and silencing or sanctioning must be the only effective counter-measure available. Certainly posting cartoons on a door is no such case. Nor would disparaging a religion, its practitioners, or its founder, no matter how savagely, count as such a case.

I’ve assumed, for the sake of argument, that Dr March’s gesture was in fact offensive and insulting and that people were right to be hurt by it and angry over it. I’ve shown, I believe, that even if Dr March’s gesture was an abuse of free speech, still, no one should have sought to punish him for it. But was his gesture actually offensive or insulting? No, it wasn’t, not at least so far as I can see. None of the cartoons counts as other than fair editorial comment on world events or culture or politics, no matter how wrong-headed one might find that comment to be. But perhaps I am mistaken about this. Maybe those hurt by Dr March’s actions were right to be hurt by them. In any case, no one hurt or upset by Dr March=s gesture has yet explained to me how they were right to be hurt or upset by it. Perhaps to begin to repair the damage to their development as intellectuals, and to begin to repair the damage to Saint Mary’s, the students who filed the complaint of harassment against Dr March could explain–fully, with argument, and with concern for objections–just how Dr March’s behaviour was obnoxious, abusive, or otherwise vile. How did posting the cartoons, or speaking against Islam or Muslims or Muhammad, if that is what Dr March did, harass anyone? To attempt to explain these things publicly would be to return to living the life of the mind.


Letter to the Editor

Reply to Zach Churchill

Published in The Journal, the student newspaper at Saint Mary’s

October 25, 2006

Reprinted in the newsletter of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship

Number 45, January 2007

Electronic version: and p.12

Mark Mercer

Department of Philosophy

Saint Mary’s University

Zach Churchill makes a mistake opponents of freedom often make (Letter to the Editor, 18 October).  Mr Churchill supposes that freedom of expression is for something.  (According to Mr Churchill, freedom of expression is “a means to criticise those in power….”)  Should freedom of expression not pay its way in securing some social goal he favours, Mr Churchill would straightaway kick it off the bus.

But those of us passionate about freedom of expression want it for its own sake, not (only) for the sake of something else.  We simply like that we and others will say what we want to say without fear of being silenced or punished by an authority.  We love freedom of expression for itself as we love many other things for themselves: our friends, political equality, knowledge, that our students become competent and committed intellectuals, the happiness and well being of our fellow citizens or of people generally, the music of Serge Gainsbourg, beauty, our children, our pets, tennis, whatever.  Sometimes, of course, we have to make compromises among those things that matter to us for their own sakes.  One deep commitment can conflict with another in a particular case, and then we have to choose against one of them.  We will not find it easy to forsake something that matters to us and we will regret having to do so.

So I can imagine agreeing with Mr Churchill that this or that restriction on expression is justified in light of either threats to equality or the plight of members of a beleaguered and vulnerable minority.  Unlike Mr Churchill, though, I would be terribly sad to have to advocate restrictions on expression–but, were the situation dire and the means crucial, advocate restrictions I would.  One practical question for Mr Churchill and me, then, in cases like that of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, is whether administrative suppression of expressions involving racist or otherwise offensive materials is a necessary, or even effective, way of promoting the social goals we share.

Mr Churchill thinks suppressing displays of the cartoons is an effective way to promote peace among nations and equality of opportunity for Muslims in Canada.  The cartoons, Mr Churchill charges, embody racist stereotypes.  Displays of the cartoons, then, will or might work to reinforce or even to engender prejudice against Muslims.  Individuals prejudiced against Muslims will act badly toward those whom they think are Muslim, and Muslims will suffer.

Let us suppose that one or another of the cartoons does indeed embody racist stereotypes.  What reason do we have to think that displaying that cartoon actually promotes racist attitudes?  What reason do we have to think that Peter’s displaying the cartoons might well have brought someone to the side of racism?  I’d like to see studies.  Perhaps Peter’s displaying the cartoons had the salutary effect of causing people prejudiced against Muslims to notice and criticise their bias.  We don’t know either way.  Before we can judge the effectiveness of censorship in realizing some social goal, we need to evaluate whatever relevant research we can get.  Mr Churchill cites no relevant research.  We ought not just assume that censorship will be an effective tool.

Let us suppose that people prejudiced against Muslims will try to act badly against those whom they think are Muslim.  How will they try to act badly against Muslims?  By denying them equality of opportunity, jobs, education, health care, a spot at the lunch counter, a seat on the airplane, freedom of dress, effective policing?  Let them try!–and then fine the bastards heavily or cart them off to jail.

While we are supposing these things, do keep in mind that even if suppressing expressions of racism has some good effect, our energies in the fight against racism and for social justice could well be better spent in ways that don’t involve suppressing any ideas or images. Our energies would be well used criticising bad ideas and images and making our own good ones.  Our energies would be well used in at least twenty-seven other ways, including, of course, doing what we can to ensure that Muslims in Canada enjoy equality of opportunity and all the rest.  I wonder: Are there adequate channels through which Muslims in Canada can speak to other Canadians to make their concerns and aspirations known?  Are there adequate channels for Muslims here at Saint Mary’s?  If not, let=s get to work.

Mr Churchill contends that the Jyllands-Posten cartoons embody false and pernicious stereotypes of Muslims and Islam.  He might be right.  Let us find out.  But wait–finding out would require that we examine the cartoons.  But we are not to view the cartoons.  After all, they embody false and pernicious stereotypes.  Viewing them might confirm us in our prejudices or, worse, make us prejudiced.  We will just have to trust the censors who have viewed the cartoons that indeed they embody false and pernicious stereotypes and that it is right that we not see them.

That’s the final point I wish to make.  Employing censorship and suppression in our endeavour to create an egalitarian and just society means handing to our politicians, bureaucrats, police, and courts an awful lot of power and then turning our backs and trusting them to use it wisely.  Even those who, with Zach Churchill, have no particular liking for freedom of expression might fear going this route.

Let me list the points I have made.  1) Zach Churchill thinks of freedom of expression as a tool that has been granted to us by our nation for a purpose or a set of purposes.  I, on the other hand, love freedom of expression and love it for its own sake.  I would no more that you or I be without it than that you or I be without music or our friends or our children or whatever else we love (no matter how bad your music, how no-account your friends, how rotten your children).  2) Nonetheless, Mr Churchill and I are concerned that Saint Mary’s, and Halifax, and Canada, and even the world be peaceful, egalitarian, and just.  We agree that we would have a strong, though perhaps not compelling, reason to accept restrictions on expression were those restrictions effective in promoting peace, equality, or justice.  3) Mr Churchill gave us in his letter no reason to think that restrictions on expression do or could promote peace, equality, or justice.  (I would note on the other side that at least one great contemporary liberation movement, that of lesbians and gays, did extremely well entirely without the aid of laws against homophobic expression.)  4) We have in Canada, or should insist on having, strong protections against discrimination in hiring, education, housing, and the rest.  Let the school teacher say whatever he wants about Jews (talk back to him, of course); fire him if he fails to teach his Jewish charges (or any of his charges) well.  5) Whether the weight of evidence turns out to be with Mr Churchill or not, much can be done to bring about peace, equality, and justice without suppressing anyone’s expressions.  6) Trust officials to suppress only racist expression?  Might as well trust the puma roaming your house to eat only the mice.

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