Secularism wins again: LSE apologizes (sort of) to students forced to cover up their Jesus and Mo shirts

December 20, 2013 • 9:44 am

On October 5 I reported that the LSE Students’ Union, apparently quite a repressive “anti hate speech” group, censored two students for wearing and selling Jesus and Mo shirts at the Fresher’s fair, and that wasn’t the first time the Union censored Jesus and Mo (they’re obviously in fear of the wrath of Islam). From my report then:

Both The British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society report that the London School of Economics is exercising censorship of students who wore and apparently sold Jesus and Mo teeshirts at the “Fresher’s Fair” (“Fresher” = American “freshman”).

From the NSS:

“A row over free expression has broken out at the London School of Economics after members of the LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Student Society (ASHSS) were told they would be physically removed from the annual Freshers’ Fair unless they covered up t-shirts deemed “offensive”.

Student Union officials removed materials from the LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Student Society stand and demanded that the group removed t-shirts they were wearing featuring satirical Jesus and Mocartoons. When asked for an explanation, LSESU officials stated that several students had complained about the t-shirts.

After a period of consultation a member of the LSE Legal and Compliance Team and Head of Security told the members of the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society that the wearing of the t-shirts could be considered “harassment”, as it could “offend others” by creating an “offensive environment”.

As I reported in January of last year, the ASHSS were also censored by the LSE Students’ Union for posting and Jesus and Mo cartoon on the group’s Facebook page.

Now, as both The Rationalist Association and The Telegraph report, the Director of the LSE, Professor Paul Kelly, has apologized to the students, admitting that he and the school made a mistake. From the Telegraph:

Prof Kelly, pro-director at LSE, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It was a difficult judgment and I quite accept I called it wrong.”

Prof Kelly dismissed claims that the decision was made on the basis of freedom of speech, but said this was based on a dispute between students. He said they had to take into account the views of everyone at the event, which sees students from hundreds of different countries across the world attend.

He also said they had received both oral and written complaints.

He added: “This was a complex event because it’s a welcome event. It’s when students from 130 countries arrive in the UK all together. Freedom of speech still applies there, but it wasn’t the same as us objecting to a student society event or a public lecture, or if Christian – as he later did – hosted an event where students wore the T-shirt. That’s fine.”

. . .The students formally appealed to LSE on November 12 and received a public apology from Professor Craig Calhoun, director of the LSE. He wrote to the pair to confirm that wearing the T-shirts did not constitute harassment or break the law.

A statement released by the university said: “LSE takes its duty to promote free speech very seriously, and as such, will discuss and learn from the issues raised by recent events.”

Note the notapology aspect of this: Kelly’s claim that this wasn’t made on the basis of freedom of speech but on a “dispute between students.” That dispute was, in fact, about freedom of speech, and the dispute was whether Islam could be satirized in Jesus and Mo cartoons (the two cartoons issue were quite innocuous; I show the designs here and have put one below):


Wow, that’s really harassment, isn’t it? Clearly the LSE, despite its grudging admission, is on the side of the thought police. The Telegraph notes that “At the time Richard Dawkins, a high profile atheist, branded LSE student union officers ‘sanctimonious little prigs’ over the incident.” Exactly right. And I’m not sure they’re free of that characterization yet, for their denial that this was a free speech issue is ludicrous.

Nevertheless, Rory Fenton at the Rationalist Association notes that it may have set an important precedent for UK universities:

The impact of this has already been felt elsewhere. I attended a meeting last week at another London university, where the students union had told its Atheist Society that they couldn’t criticise Christianity in their posters, using a bizarre interpretation of the Equality Act as their justification. The society stuck to their guns and, bolstered by the legal assurance already secured at LSE, argued the case that their free expression was being curtailed. The union backed down.

Universities will have paid close attention to the LSE’s behaviour. It is clear that the case for free speech has been made and won. While not quite a judge’s ruling, a more subtle precedent has been set: freedom of expression does not bow to religious sensitivities. Well done to Chris and Abhishek for sticking to their principles and taking this to the end. Here’s hoping no more students have to.

Nobody has the right not to be offended—neither Muslims nor Christians. Can we realize that and move on?

28 thoughts on “Secularism wins again: LSE apologizes (sort of) to students forced to cover up their Jesus and Mo shirts

    1. I’m offended by people who are easily offended too. So sometimes I offend myself, which I find quite offensive.

      Most religions are a criticism of other religions, Christianity and Islam can’t both be true, Hinduism and Judaism can’t both be true, etc. The only way for religions not to offend other religious people is to never say anything about their religion in public, like the theology of Scientology, they keep that very quiet.
      If religious people followed this idea then there would be no need for atheism to be so public either, no one would have a clue what we are talking about. It’s like the Terminator films, if they didn’t go back in time to kill Sarah Connor she would never have found out, John would never have been born. Or, if they did not try a second time John Connor would have still been a bum thinking his mother was crazy and would never have been aware to prepare himself. Skynet basically trained John to kill them. Thus Skynet would have won the war if they just shut up and waited. But we don’t have just one Skynet, we have thousands. All contradicting each other with the secrets of artificial intelligence, time-travel and what is going to happen on Judgement Day. Because they are not bothering to build killer cyborgs, they just keep threatening us with them, atheism and skepticism has to come out and play and tell them killer cyborgs don’t exist, just some man made fantasy, translated and copied over the decades to suit any cultural needs.

      1. Don’t mix your Terminator references. The first movie showed a consistent stable time loop. The second was something totally different.

        1. I don’t know what you mean.
          But if I did make a huge mistake then its for the same mistakes made between old Testament, new testament, the third movie being Book of Mormon?

  1. @Prof Kelly: “It was a difficult judgment and I quite accept I called it wrong.”

    The problem isn’t calling it wrong, the problem is feeling the need to “call it” in the first place.


  2. If you aren’t supposed to offend others, I hope the atheists start complaining about any religious signage around the university on the basis of “offence” too.

    Stephen Fry’s quote comes to mind:

    “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.”

    [I saw hate in a graveyard — Stephen Fry, The Guardian, 5 June 2005]”

  3. It’s bollocks that Kelly’s action was based on a disputatious environment at a welcoming event because there is already precedence of suppression that has nothing to do with an unwelcoming stance. If it quacks like a duck…

    1. It’s relevant. Catholics are the guys who walk around with miniature necklace sculptures of a guy being tortured to death on a croas who are offended by cartoon characters of imaginary men who say “Hey” and “Howya doin’?”

  4. That T-shirt is seriously offensive. Jesus says, “Hey.” And then Mo says, “How ya doin?” I mean, why not just spit in a guy’s face if you’re gonna wear something so hateful.

    1. While the captions are indeed extremely and unspeakably rude, vulgar and blasphemic, keep in mind that simply depicting ‘Mo’ is already reason enough for certain muslims to behead or otherwise kill the ‘depictor’.

  5. A “notapology,” ha.

    A notapology I have received:

    “I am sorry that you were upset (by such-and-such).

    As if the problem is somehow solely with my being “upset.”

  6. I am not certain that you are not being a little too harsh with the LSC. Note the last comment you attributed to them (or their head guy or whatever): “LSE takes its duty to promote free speech very seriously, and as such, will discuss and learn from the issues raised by recent events.” He says they will discuss and try to learn from this event. It is possible that he really meant that, especially if you compare that statement with most canned PR ‘apologies.” At least he says that there might actually be something in the universe that he and his brethren do not know. This is truly huge step for an organization of this kind. It is frequently a very difficult thing to judge. As with the multitude of official agencies here in the states who must protect parading KKK events, the public often interprets giving these people the right to have their say implies agreement.

  7. Berke Brethead, a great cartoonist, captured this sentiment (nobody has the right to not be offended) almost three decades ago. Use Google to search for

    bloom county offensensitivity

    This is just one of many strips he wrote on this theme.

  8. This was a complex event because it’s a welcome event. It’s when students from 130 countries arrive in the UK all together.”

    Hmmm.. it seems to me that allowing the expression of free speech in front of all these newly arrived foreign students lets them to see exactly how an enlightened Western society allows its people to freely express themselves.

    “it wasn’t the same as us objecting to a student society event or a public lecture….where students wore the T-shirt. That’s fine.”

    In other words, free speech is only allowable when you express it where someone who could be ‘offended’ hasn’t freely attend the event. Well, that certainly doesn’t seem a definition of free speech to me!

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