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?