Humanists condemn another attack on atheist expression at London University

  • post Type / Action Alert
  • Date / 24 January 2012

Yet another Humanist student group in London is being threatened with censorship for talking about Islam. The London School of Economics (LSE) Student Union has instructed the LSE Student Union Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (LSESU ASH) to remove cartoons featuring Jesus and Mohammed from their Facebook page. It is the third instance this month of free speech being threatened at a London college.

Earlier in January, the University College London (UCL) Student Union ordered the UCL Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society to take down the same Jesus and Mo cartoon (see below)  from its Facebook page (see story at: http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/968). The group refused and the Student Union eventually backed down. Then, on January 16, a public meeting about sharia law was halted at Queen Mary College London after an Islamist protestor threatened to murder participants (see story at https://humanists.international/threats-violence-force-cancellation-university-talk-sharia-law)

Jesus and Mo cartoonLSESU ASH is not complying with the instruction to remove the cartoon and has appealed to LSESU to withdraw it. LSESU ASH President Chris Moos made a statement on behalf of the Society’s committee: “There are no reasonable grounds for the LSESU’s instruction because we are in no way violating their policies or byelaws. The cartoons on our Facebook page criticise religion in a satirical way and we totally reject any claim that their publications could constitute any sort of harassment or intimidation of Muslims or Christians.

“That there was no deliberate intention to offend is illustrated by the fact that the cartoons were posted only on the LSESU ASH page and not in other spaces. But even if some people are offended, offence is not a sufficient reason for certain artistic and satirical forms of expression to be prohibited. A university should hold no idea sacred and be open to the critiquing of all ideas and ideologies.

“We want to engage with LSESU and work with them further to resolve the situation, but not in a way that jeopardises the legitimate criticism or satirising of religious and other beliefs. That is a freedom which is indispensable.”

Jenny Bartle, president of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS), gave support to the LSESU ASH: “Our members are committed to working with their Student Unions to secure good relations between students with different beliefs. However, Unions must also understand that the giving of offence does not constitute harassment and when it is the incidental by-product of legitimate activities, offence is not a good reason to inhibit free expression. We will work to support our affiliate society at LSE and hope that the Union will be sensible, accept that they have overreacted, and withdraw their request.”

Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA) and vice president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), said: “The officers of LSESU ASH have clearly been reasonable in their dealings with their union and it is clearly unreasonable for a simple satirical depiction of religious figures to be deemed tantamount to intimidation of religious students. The freedom to criticise all sorts of beliefs and hold them open to satire as well as intellectual critique is a vital generator of intellectual progress – something which universities should safeguard.”

The AHS and BHA also announced that they were beginning an investigation of how Student Unions were approaching issues of free speech and offence in relation to religious and non-religious beliefs with a view to providing guidance to institutions. Ms Bartle commented, “There has been too much conflation recently of being offended and being intimidated, with the implication being that they are equivalent. Such an assumption is a potential threat to free speech and free debate, and we are concerned to address this underlying problem in the long term.”

Student Union statement

The  LSE Students’ Union issued the following statement on religious discrimination on campus and the freedom of expression: “The LSE community’s values of tolerance, diversity, and respect for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or religious affiliation are not in accordance with the offensive nature displayed in the recent cases of antisemitism and Islamophobia. We respect the need for freedom of expression and discussion, but believe there must be a balance between respecting freedom of speech and protecting the communities that make up the student body at the LSE.”

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, an IHEU member organization in the UK, replied that, “These statements by the Student Union are deeply shocking. They appear to be prepared to sacrifice the primary principle of free speech on the altar of claimed offence. The cartoon at the centre of this scandal is extremely mild and in no way inflammatory, threatening or abusive. It is nothing more than very light satire.

“If it is now being suggested – as the Students Union’s ridiculous statement seems to suggest – that it is in some way ‘racist’ or threatening, then we have reached a point where rational argument has flown out of the window.

“We all want to protect individuals from being threatened or intimidated. This cartoon does neither. Conflating criticism or satire of Islam with persecution of Muslim people is crazy, but it is regrettably on the rise. We risk here introducing a form of blasphemy law that has proved so evil and lethal in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The Students Union seem blind to the fact that they are being pushed into a very oppressive place by determined and manipulative activists.

“The NSS calls on the Students Union to come to its senses and get this in proportion. We will support the ASH Society in any action they want to take to protect the precious principle of free expression.”

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