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A poster for a campus forum on the limits of free speech has set off a debate at the University of Minnesota — about the limits of free speech.

The poster, which first appeared in January, prompted hundreds of complaints from Muslim students and others for reproducing a controversial illustration of the prophet Mohammed from the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo.

But it's the university's response to the complaints — just weeks after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo — that drew fire from some faculty members.

After initially demanding that the posters be taken down, university officials quickly rescinded the ban, calling it a mistake. Then the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action investigated and advised the dean of liberal arts to disavow the use of the offending image and "use your leadership role to repair the damage" it caused in the Muslim community.

Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law, said she was taken aback by the U's response. "There is no question in my mind that this [poster] was protected speech," Kirtley said.

The incident, which has been simmering behind the scenes for months, first was reported April 29 in the Minnesota Daily. On Tuesday, it drew national attention in the online journal Inside Higher Ed, in the wake of Sunday's attack by gunmen on an anti-Islam cartoon contest in Garland, Texas.

Prof. Bruno Chaouat said the January forum, which he helped to organize, was designed as "an opportunity to educate about free speech." He called the university's reaction — deciding to launch an investigation — part of a worrisome trend.

"I think what's going on is a global problem … of self-censorship," said Chaouat, who is chairman of the Department of French and Italian. In particular, he called the recommendation to disavow the poster "profoundly outrageous."

John Coleman, the liberal-arts dean, said Tuesday he has no intention of following that recommendation. "I really think the important thing here is to affirm and reaffirm the importance of open debate," he said in an interview. That freedom, he noted, applies to everyone, including "Muslim students, Christian students, Jewish students. We want everybody to feel that they are able to express their views and either agree or disagree."

The poster featured a now-famous drawing of a tearful prophet Mohammed, holding a sign "Je Suis Charlie," which appeared on the cover of Charlie Hebdo days after Islamic militants killed 12 staff members at the magazine's Paris headquarters.

On the poster, the word "censored" was superimposed on the drawing, under the heading: "Can One Laugh At Everything? Satire and Free Speech After Charlie."

Organizers say the forum drew more than 200 people.

Shortly afterward, eight people filed complaints with the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office, saying the depiction of Mohammed was offensive and insulting to Muslims. In addition, some 300 people, including 260 Muslim students, signed a petition calling the flier "very offensive." "Knowing that these caricatures hurt and are condemned by 1.75 billion Muslims in the world, the University should not have re-circulated/re-produced them," the petition said, and it urged the U to prevent it from happening again.

As a result, the office launched an investigation, questioning faculty organizers about why they used the image.

Kimberly Hewitt, the director, said her office had no choice but to investigate. "There are limits on free speech, and that would be where you have harassment of an individual based on their identity," she said. "We got complaints from eight individuals and a petition from 300 people saying that they felt that this was insulting, disparaging to their faith."

When word of the complaints got out, a college administrator sent out an e-mail asking that the fliers be taken down. Coleman, the dean, said he promptly reversed that order when he learned about it. "I needed to make it clear in my position that our support for academic freedom and freedom of speech is absolutely paramount," he said.

In the end, the investigation concluded that the flier "does not rise to the level of discriminatory harassment that would violate University policy," according to a March 27 report.

But it also found that, because many people found the poster "personally offensive and hurtful," it had contributed to an "atmosphere of disrespect towards Muslims at the University." In a letter to Coleman, Hewitt recommended that he "communicate that [the College of Liberal Arts] does not support the flier's image of the Charlie Hebdo depiction of Muhammad."

Faculty organizers say they're still waiting for a formal response from Coleman, who has scheduled a meeting with them in a few weeks.

Chaouat, meanwhile, said that the planners had no intent to offend anyone when they chose the poster and that he sees the outcry as an attempt to silence debate. "It was an operation of intimidation," he said. And he argues that it's especially effective in the wake of January's bloody attack on the French magazine.

"This is my main concern, that we're going to make excuses," he said. "We're going to pretend it's out of compassion, when it's out of fear that we're censoring ourselves."

Another organizer, Riv-Ellen Prell, said she hopes the controversy will spark more conversation, not less. "There's no question in my mind that these students have the right to raise these concerns," said Prell, a professor of American Studies and director of the Center for Jewish Studies.

"We can't allow those who are hurt to stop the conversation; and we can never stop paying attention to their pain, because that's part of the conversation as well."

The January forum, she said, was meant to be a start. "To raise the questions of how we deal with humor when the stakes are so high."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384