Wisconsin College Atheist Group Says Word Muhammad Was Wiped Off May 6, 2010

Wisconsin College Atheist Group Says Word Muhammad Was Wiped Off

Just a couple days after the Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics group at the University of Wisconsin – Madison drew stick figure images of Muhammad on their campus, the word “Muhammad” has been rubbed away on several of their images.

The AHA group doesn’t know who did this (and they’re not jumping to conclusions and blaming the Muslim Student Association).

Still, they wonder whether the MSA is serious about standing up for their right to free speech. Will the MSA applaud the erasing or will they support the atheist group and issue some statement against the vandal?

Chris Calvey, the group president, also has a response to those atheists who argue this is a bad idea in the first place and should never have happened:

A common sentiment I’ve heard the past few days went a little something like this: “I’m totally in favor of free speech and all, but what you’re doing is needlessly offensive. Just because you can draw Muhammad doesn’t mean that you should.”

And my response was simple — we shall see if I can.

As it turns out, no, you cannot draw depictions of Muhammad in Madison. At least, not without having them immediately changed to pictures of Muhammad Ali, and not without having them censored the next day. Let’s imagine an alternate universe. Let’s say the drawings were never tampered with, but instead were met with nothing more than shrugged shoulders and public admonishment for our childish behavior. In this scenario the egg would be on our faces. Instead, suffice it to say that our point has been proven. The right to criticize religion and perform blasphemous acts needs to be defended more than ever.

I still support what AHA did. And I agree that the response from the Muslim students and the anonymous vandal just underscores the importance of fighting for our right to free speech. People like them would rather we never criticize their prophet or even draw him. They don’t have the right to silence us.


Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Autumnal Harvest

    Unless the AHA owns these sidewalks – and I’m pretty sure that they don’t – they don’t have a free speech right to have their drawings left alone. It’s a public sidewalk. Anyone can draw stuff on it, and anyone can draw over stuff or erase stuff. This sort of “free speech claim” just underscores how this is about being childishly offensive, rather than actually standing up for free speech in any meaningful way.

  • Paul Zimmerle

    I firmly disagree about this absurd suggestion that this is childishly offensive, Harvest.

    Muslims have been willing to kill for depictions of their prophet, and that is reason enough for us to show them that we are not intimidated.

    We have a right to draw whatever we choose, and if we choose to draw Muhammad they can complain and tut all they like, but vandalizing our works or threatening us is going too far.

  • Nakor

    This should be done again, only this time in a format where the vandalization of the drawings would be illegal. For example, on private property in a more permanent format (posters for example), or some other way/place where there would be no legal right to deface or remove the images.

  • Threats yes, but vandalizing?
    Here’s an interesting thought. I wonder if you could identify the “vandal” if you could bring a copyright suit or suit under the Visual Artists’ Rights Act for defacing your artwork.
    I think you’d have to do something more creative than a stick figure, but if you have anyone with sidewalk art skills it would be an interesting experiment.

  • Molly

    I agree with Autumnal Harvest. This doesn’t stand up for free speech in a meaningful way. It is needlessly disrespectful and antagonistic.

  • Aj

    I support the cause of breaking taboos, and the MSA reaction of legal threats is enough to prove it was right. However, changing or removing chalk drawings on public places is not impinging on anyone’s rights, and I don’t understand why Chris is whining. Draw more, too many to change, spread pig fat over them, and write warnings that for every changed drawing there’ll be four more. Get creative, make it hard for them to respond.

  • Killer Bee

    A Muslim narrowly fails in blowing up hundreds of people in Time’s Square and we’re still talking about altered chalk drawings.

    Give me a fucking break.

  • Richard P.

    I’m just wondering..
    If making chalk figures on a public sidewalk is a form of free speech, then is not a modification of said Chalk drawings simply another expression of free speech. After all it is a chalk drawing on a sidewalk.
    So if one form of free speech is okay, why is altering it considered vandalism and not just anothers expression of free speech?

    Not that I agree with the muslims perspective on drawings. But, it is a chalk drawing in a public space. What right is there to expect that someone shouldn’t be allowed to alter it.
    At least there wasn’t a snipper picking off those drawing it or a mob attacking them. They got there chance to expess themselves, what is so wrong with the muslims doing the same thing in the same manner, without forcing anyone to comply or threatening anyone?

    Seems some what hypocritical to whine about this.

    You know just considering the concept of free speech and all.

  • Sidewalk chalk is cheap. Get more. Do more. Be more creative with it.

  • smellygirl

    This is just stupid. If you can draw on the public sidewalk as “free speech” then muslims can erase chalk drawing or add more to chalk drawings as free speech. In my opinion, the initial drawings were vandalism (though of a trivial + temporary sort).

  • Bob

    @AutumalHarvest:

    A public sidewalk may not carry an express guarantee that your chalk drawing will remain unchanged, but isn’t part of free speech about *respecting* the other person’s views?

    Doubtless, we all have things we would find offensive, and if we’re all busy erasing or editing someone else’s work, then no one’s message is being heard, and everyone loses.

  • “A public sidewalk may not carry an express guarantee that your chalk drawing will remain unchanged, but isn’t part of free speech about *respecting* the other person’s views?”

    No, it isn’t. Free speech means you can say what you want (for the most part) and not be imprisoned for it. Free speech does not free you from criticism or rebuttal–disrespectful or otherwise.

  • Richard P.

    “but isn’t part of free speech about *respecting* the other person’s views?”

    And what part of respecting others views represented in the original drawings?
    None. It wasn’t supposed to, it was about the right to express.
    That is a kettle & pot scenario if I have ever seen one.

    No, free speech in not about respecting others views, it’s about expressing your own.
    If they were concerned about the longevity of the message they should have created something more permanent.

  • Chris O.

    This would only be a “Freedom of Speech” test if the school officials allowed other chalk drawings, but prohibited these, due to their content. Since the school administration doesn’t seem to care what they drew, I would say freedom of speech is alive and well at Wisconsin. AHA excercised it, and so did whoever changed their drawings.

  • Mak

    Seriously. Vandal? *Vandal?* This is petty.

  • Jon

    Free speech also means you have to deal with the consequences of your speech and respect the right that others can exercise their right, i.e., doctoring your chalk drawings.

  • Bob

    @RichardP:

    Note that I said ‘part of’ – so, the AHA having exercised their free speech by drawing stick figures, and while there is nothing that makes it inviolable, there is nothing that DEMANDS someone alter or deface the messages, either.

    Hence, respect. You can choose to take offense, you can choose to ignore it as bearing little or no impact on the validity and strength of your own faith, or you can get your panties in a bunch about how labelling a stick figure ‘Mohammed’ is disrespectful, sacreligious, and blasphemous.

    I’m surprised you’re not familiar with Clarence Darrow’s quote, “We can only be free by protecting the other man’s freedom; I can be free only if you are free.”

    In my book, that’s respecting (not the same as approving of) someone else’s speech.

    . <— Mohammed. Gonna declare a fatwa against Strunk & White?

  • plutosdad

    Modifying the drawings is no more free speech than the people who shouted down and stormed up onto the stage to stop Minutemen from speaking about illegal immigration. That of course was a much more direct violation of feedom of assembly. The people who tried to stop those assemblies claimed they were using free speech but they were not. (peacably protesting without stopping them from speaking would be) If those people respected free speech, they would have engaged the speakers in debate during the Q&A. But they don’t respect free speech.

    Shouting down and stopping speech (or covering it up) is not an expression of free speech. It is the opposite.

    Whether it is “a stick figure” or not is immaterial. The 1st amendement doesn’t say “only grand moving speech” it says “no law” at all, whether it’s stick figures, porn, or something more intelligent.

    Now since they don’t really have a right to draw on the schools’ property in the first place, I don’t think they have much of a case saying their rights were violated. But, certainly the coverer uppers actions were not “free speech” it was trying to stifle speech.

  • Alexrkr7

    “…childishly offensive…”

    “It is needlessly disrespectful and antagonistic.”

    I honestly cannot understand these viewpoints whatsoever. It just seems to me that you two are just far to sensitive. We can only be accommodating to other viewpoint so much before what they are asking us is too much. And when the idea of a stick figure depicting Muhammad is over the line, I can’t make that accommodation.

    We don’t have the right ‘not to be offended’ and its the very viewpoint you’re espousing that is the reason these drawings go up. Stop acting as though they’re depicting Muhammad getting sodomized with a forklift and the drawings will stop. It’s a response to the threats and the offense that those are taking from it that they need to go up. Hate to make the comparison but any civil rights and human rights movement had to do things that the people at the time found offensive (like existing or asking for the vote or sitting in the ‘whites only’ section)

    It’s your sensitivity that needs the changing not the activity. Should women stop getting abortions because it offends the sensibilities of the Catholics? Should gay people stop having parades because Pat Robertson thinks they cause hurricanes? Should atheist writers stop writing books because the religious don’t agree with the message? Should people stop drawing Muhammad because it enrages and offends Muslims? No, No, No and No. And if your answers are “No, No, No and Yes” please explain why.

    And to those saying that this isn’t free speech or that modifying or erasing the drawings is simply another form of free speech, you’re doing a good job at following the law to the letter and not the principle. Fuck it lets say it’s not technically free speech. I don’t care. I want to follow the principle of the the amendment and not the amendment itself. If a Christian put down a drawing of Jesus with a caption “Jesus saves!” next to it it should be left alone. I can draw something close to it but I think it’s censorship to wipe it off or to give Jesus a hockey stick, a mask and draw a hockey goal behind him depicting him deflecting a puck. That’s called stifling and censorship. You can do that, but it’s all the more reason to fight against it. Are there bigger problems in the world? Yes. That doesn’t mean someone can’t take it upon themselves to fight the small fight, the local one closer to home.

  • @plutosdad,
    A refreshing voice of knowledge and reason. Well put.

  • @Alexrkr7

    It’s your sensitivity that needs the changing not the activity. Should women stop getting abortions because it offends the sensibilities of the Catholics? Should gay people stop having parades because Pat Robertson thinks they cause hurricanes? Should atheist writers stop writing books because the religious don’t agree with the message? Should people stop drawing Muhammad because it enrages and offends Muslims? No, No, No and No. And if your answers are “No, No, No and Yes” please explain why.

    The left-wing multi-culturalists are just as dogmatic and inflexible in their approach to issues as the far right. I would be amazed if your argument was to have any effect. It doesn’t fit their preconceived notions of how things should be and how people should behave. Evidence, experience, and logic be damned. There’s an agenda to be pushed!

  • Bob

    @Alexrkr7:

    JESUS SAVES! (and takes half damage!)

    /gamer humor

  • I really don’t think the drawings are childish. Ridicule is a powerful tool of free speech. Like boobquake, silly signs at a Phelps counter-protest, or Restore Joss Whedon, ridicule is often the best response to absurd claims. If muslims want to say they can’t draw Mohammed, fine, but it’s absurd to say they have a right to make everyone else in the world never draw Mohammed. Free speech means hearing things you disagree with. No one has a right not to be offended in the public square.

  • Greg

    If the threats to the South Park folks had actually been carried out (or attempted, anyway), would this then have been childishly offensive?

    Sorry, but anyone who thinks these were childish, or made with the sole intention of insulting people has had the whole point of them fly completely over their heads.

    This was not vandalism – I think that was a poor choice of words, Hemant – it was however a form of censorship. The censors were quite entitled to do the things they did as these chalk drawings were on public property. If these had, say, been flyers on a noticeboard, then it would have been illegal, and it should have been punished.

    My take? Nothing ‘wrong’ as such took place here – the AHA made a statement in favour of free speech by drawing Muhammad (and clearly stated beforehand the reasons for what they were doing). The MSA made a statement in support of censorship and against free speech by altering and now erasing parts of the drawings.

    Both sides have now put their point of view forward (although if not for the internet, I suppose the AHA’s point would have been missed by most people), and we know more about both groups of people.

    Meh.

    Anyway, Richard P:

    I’m just wondering..
    If making chalk figures on a public sidewalk is a form of free speech, then is not a modification of said Chalk drawings simply another expression of free speech. After all it is a chalk drawing on a sidewalk.
    So if one form of free speech is okay, why is altering it considered vandalism and not just anothers expression of free speech?

    If we try this (admittedly simple) analogy, do you sort of see where people are coming from?

    Someone stands up at a meeting, and starts to speak into a microphone. Another person unplugs their microphone, and speaks into their own one instead, drowning out the initial speaker.

    Have both people had equal use of free speech?

    Another more complex analogy might involve someone taking a pre-recorded speech and editing it to fit better with their own views, destroying the original speech when they had finished, and then releasing it to the public whilst not explaining it had been edited.

  • mikespeir

    I agree with Autumnal Harvest.

  • Justin

    Another more complex analogy might involve someone taking a pre-recorded speech and editing it to fit better with their own views, destroying the original speech when they had finished, and then releasing it to the public whilst not explaining it had been edited.
    The above is also known as news.

  • Alex

    Do we have a right of conscience or don’t we? There are not many places in our country that expressing your right of conscience would get you killed, but there are many places that your children would be ostracized and you could lose your job.

  • Richard P.

    Your analogies are great but they do not have anything to do with what happened here.

    First, no one forced them to stop what they were doing while they did it.
    Second, there was record of the before and the after.
    Third, the AHA was allowed to express themselves freely without persecution. Even the modifications done were easily recognizable.

    I suppose that if it had rained would you have railed against the clouds then?
    (sorry that was a joke and uncalled for.)

  • Here is a sad update from the Council on American Islamic Relations at UIUC. One of several objections I had to this event was that it would lead to things like this. How embarrassing.

    Jason C. Romero
    Former VP, AAF

    Drawings Update

    As an update to the drawings incident, the Quad was recently chalked again with stick figures of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. More disturbing, however, was the fact that the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center in Urbana was vandalized with such drawings and messages yesterday. Obviously vandalizing private property is beyond offensive and is illegal. The proper authorities have been notified and we hope that the issue is resolved soon. Again, we encourage writing to the Daily Illini about the issue and you can contact us if you would like to work on a letter with others.”

  • plutosdad

    wow thanks godless monster same to you and your comments 🙂

    I have been recently learning the value of humility thanks, interestingly enough, to my christian girlfriend who has been challenging me on my assumptions. And studying some philosophy and anthropology lately that has taught me how little I know.

  • muggle

    Frankly, I agree with Killer Bee.

    However, gimme a break. Chris is way overreacting now. Way. It’s a crude chalk drawing on a sidewalk. I still actually think the Muslims handled it well. AHA got to do their mocking; MSA also got to respond to that mocking. Perfectly fair. What AHA seems to be doing now is to repress the response. HOW FUCKING DARE THEY? Frankly, it ain’t the Muslims being the hypocrites this time.

    If a Christian put down a drawing of Jesus with a caption “Jesus saves!” next to it it should be left alone.

    Not if I was around! Around the parts I live the godpod are always putting tracts around and taping things to the bus shelters etc. I remove them to the nearest trash receptacle whenever I see them. With a rather large groan. The more obnoxious they are, the greater the groan.

    These were not paid for, private billboard advertisements. If you just put deposable shit around on the public ways, you can reasonably expect it to be tampered with. The best you can hope for is to have some folks see it first. In this case, both points of view were, seen heard and discussed half to death.

    The Muslims handled it civilly and should be given credit for doing so. Geeze, next time, given the reception they got to being civil, they may not, unfortunately.

  • @muggle

    Chris here.
    How am I overreacting exactly? If you read my previous blog posts, you’ll see that I actually defended the MSA’s response, twice.

    I stand by my original statement that is was a cunning response to a rather difficult situation, and it still allowed us to get our point across.

    You’ve got to hand it to them, it was a creative and non-confrontational way to minimize the intolerable offense of seeing stick figures labeled Muhammad. It was a celebration of free speech for everyone!

    I gave them plenty of credit for the way they handled it, and nowhere did I attempt to “repress the response”

    In my latest post, I also did not claim that AHA’s rights were violated in any strict legal sense – I was merely lamenting the fact that our drawings couldn’t even last 24 hours without being erased.

  • Citizen Z

    I agree with what Chris Calvey is doing, but he could’ve explained himself better. Having your sidewalk chalk drawings altered is several magnitudes different from being attacked with an axe in your home.

  • Flail

    This makes me want a backpack with a stick-figure Mohammad to wear to class. This wouldn’t require any sort of vandalizing, and there is nothing they could legally do to hinder you.

    The AHA could really use this as a fun opportunity to raise funds for their organization. Heck, you could even make stick figure Mohammad Ali backpacks to sell to your Muslim classmates!

  • fea24

    My problem with the whole thing is that it went for the easy target and was a “demonstration” that even right wing Christians would get behind.
    I would have been more impressed if they has made an effigy of Mohammed, dressed him like the KKK, wrapped it in a US flag and burned it on a cross.

    If you want to make a point, don’t pick on a minority (in this country) that’s already being picked on. It doesn’t make it look like the point is free speech, it just makes it look anti-Islam.

    But it does raise the question of who is responsible for insuring any individual’s freedom of speech and religion. Is it my job to protect your speech? If I find a chalk drawing that I think is offensive, why shouldn’t I change or remove it? Part of the problem, in this case, is the medium of the message. Chalk on sidewalks is in public. Once you walk away, it isn’t yours anymore, you’ve left it for others to interact with it.

    Anyone who does public/guerilla art knows this and it’s part of the process. Heck, it’s the POINT of the process.

    The Muslim students totally won this round.

  • Greg

    Richard P – sorry, I thought your question was genuinely meant and not merely an attempt at rhetoric.

    You can almost always pick holes in analogies if you try hard enough. The best analogies are the ones where it is hardest to pick holes in. The point of them is to illustrate a position better, not replace the initial instance.

    However, your objections are rather irrelevant to the question of free speech and censorship.

    First, no one forced them to stop what they were doing while they did it.
    Second, there was record of the before and the after.
    Third, the AHA was allowed to express themselves freely without persecution. Even the modifications done were easily recognizable.

    1) So what? Are you claiming that free speech only applies at the exact moment of speech/drawing/writing etc.? Seriously? So when a journalist has finished writing an article, if it then gets altered before publishing; or published, but manually altered immediately the paper comes off the press; free speech is not hampered in any way? The second analogy I suggested already dealt with this anyway.

    2) Again, so what? If all a person sees is the changed drawings, then how exactly is someone meant to know there was a before and after, let alone records of the before and after?

    3) That is your overall claim. You are claiming ‘the AHA were allowed to express themselves freely without persecution’ – you can’t use that as a point for the claim that ‘the AHA were allowed to express themselves freely without persecution’.

    You also say the modifications done were easily recognisable. Really? Well I’ll concede it for the sake of argument.

    So what?!

    If I see a sign crossed out with black paint so that it is unreadable, then the modifications are also easily recognisable.

    Btw, thanks for telling me that was a joke – I wouldn’t have realised otherwise.

    (And perhaps that was also uncalled for… :p)

    Sorry for sounding irritable – had a late night watching the election, and an early appointment which went badly.

  • @fea24
    You wrote:

    My problem with the whole thing is that it went for the easy target and was a “demonstration” that even right wing Christians would get behind.
    I would have been more impressed if they has made an effigy of Mohammed, dressed him like the KKK, wrapped it in a US flag and burned it on a cross.

    If you want to make a point, don’t pick on a minority (in this country) that’s already being picked on. It doesn’t make it look like the point is free speech, it just makes it look anti-Islam.

    Would you please be so kind as to do us all a favor and let us know exactly WHICH ideas are okay to criticize and in what proportion we may criticize them in comparison to others? In addition, could you please help me out by telling me what exactly constitutes an easy target as opposed to one that isn’t? I’m also dying to understand how you would explain the meaning to passersby of an effigy of Mohammad, dressed in a KKK hood (conveniently unrecognizable as the Prophet then), wrapped in a flag and burned on a cross.
    This relativistic obsession with equal time for all points of view (as long as mine wins out, of course) is what right-wing fundamentalists have picked up from the far left over the last 25-30 years. Whether it’s right wing jerks or lefty whiners spouting it, it’s still silly.
    P.S. Of COURSE it’s anti-Islam, because Islam is against free speech. Would you have a problem if someone was against Nazism? Nazis are a minority in the U.S….just like the KKK. Muslims FAR outnumber either group. Maybe we should cut them some slack as well? I mean, they are, after all…”easy targets”.

  • Richard P.

    Hey Greg, first off, you do not ever need to apologize for “sounding irritable”. I get mistaken for being that way on occasion to.

    “Are you claiming that free speech only applies at the exact moment of speech/drawing/writing etc.?”

    No, I do not mean that. I do think that if they were looking to present an expression that had the potential to convey a message for any extended length of time they should have used a more permanent medium.

    Is there a time limit in which you feel would have been acceptable before they exercised there right express themselves?

    “so what? If all a person sees is the changed drawings, then how exactly is someone meant to know there was a before and after, let alone records of the before and after?”

    See above.

    “you can’t use that as a point for the claim”

    Why not? what persecution were they subjected to?

  • @Richard P.,
    Maybe I’m missing something, but I never knew that “persecution” constituted an element of obstruction or prevention of free speech. If you could direct me to your sources, I’d very much appreciate it.

  • muggle

    Uh, Chris, your whole last paragraph there. You seem to think the Muslims had no right to counter your mocking. Yes, they did.

    And I hold by what I said, they handled it much better than you did.

    Frankly, I think fea24 has a valid point. However, so does Godless Monster. Now that I’m feeling somewhat like Tevye, I’ll let that go…