London School of Economics Apologises For Banning Free Speech
FREEDOM of Speech is under attack on your student campuses. The London School of Economics (LSE) banned Chris Moos and Abhishek Phandis, of the student Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (LSEASH), from wearing Jesus and Mo cartooons at the SU Freshers’ Fair on 3 October.
It’s not the Islamofascists and funny, dangerous foreigners eroding our free speech; it’s us.
But it’s all about equality, isn’t it? Only, if everyone gets to be equal, who gets to be free?
The University of Birmingham’s code of practice on freedom of speech on campus is long. A nine-page list of codes for being free and saying what you want in public. Because free speech needs a lot of explaining when it’s not free.
The University of Bolton actually wants students to debate what can be talked about before any event:
Anyone involved in organising a meeting or other activity, or processing a room booking should consider whether there is a possibility that the speaker may not be able to enter or leave the building safely and/or have the freedom within the law to deliver their speech; or that a breach of the civil or criminal law may be committed. The following is an indicative list of circumstances which might give rise to a reasonable apprehension that disruption or disorder may occur.
You know, the kind of things students might want to talk about are only allowed to be talked about with official approval lest the sensitive be upset. This is great:
(a) where the subject-matter of the meeting or activity includes in whole or in part Animal experimentation Immigration and nationality policy The supposed superiority or otherwise of racial/ethnic/religious groupings Blood sports Genocide A current or recent war (or revolution) Sexual abuse of children and paedophilia Abortion Drugs policy Terrorism Other local or national controversial matters
(b) when the guest or visiting speaker includes Any current Member of the House of Commons or Lords A present or former representative of any political party which has put forward candidates at a British or Irish Parliament election in the last 20 years Any member of the British or an overseas Royal family Any diplomat or the representative of a foreign power Any person who has previously been prevented from delivering a speech or whose presence has threatened a breach of the peace at the University or any other Higher Education Institution
(c) where the subject matter might be considered to be of a blasphemous (3) nature (not just in respect of Christianity), obscene or defamatory. This list is provided for guidance and is not intended to be exhaustive. If there is any doubt whether the Code applies, the guidance of the University Secretary and Clerk to the Governors should be sought.
Bolton then explains: “‘Blasphemy’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘irreverent talk about God or sacred things’.”
And get this caveat to free speech from Exeter University:
The University expects students, staff, governors, the Students’ Guild and visitors to ensure freedom of speech within the law is assured. Whilst there is no legal prohibition on offending others, the University nevertheless believes that discussion that is open and honest can take place only if offensive or provocative action and language is avoided.
Talk about anything you like. But you must not offend anyone.
The LSE Code of Free Speech includes the gem: “The Conference and Events Office will normally screen bookings from within and outside of the School.”
Students, Give up now. Ideas are set in stone. Forget that speech is how we communicate ideas – both good and bad; how we shape lives; and just stick to the talking about the things the officials approve of. What ideas can be discussed has been decided upon. Free speech means freedom not only for the thoughts you approve of but those you despise. Don’t ban it. It just makes you look weak.
Last year, we noted that the LSEASH wanted to feature a picture of Muslim Prophet Mohammed and Jesus Christ “sitting in a pub having a pint” on its group Facebook page. The LSE Student Union was upset enough to call an “emergency meeting”.
Tasif Aman made a good point:
When analysing the nature of the cartoons, however, one could conclude that defending the right to draw such cartoons is not related to promoting freedom of speech if the cartoons serve no purpose in actually criticising religion (or anything else). I will propose that the cartoons are designed to promote and reinforce a reductive and perverse view of religion often based on prejudice or ignorance. However, I will not argue that the cartoons should be censored or banned because they may cause offence.
I strongly believe that the question shouldn’t be whether “offensive” cartoons should or shouldn’t be published. Rather, we should question whether using freedom of speech to cause offense and provoke sections of society is compatible with civic responsibility within a pluralist, tolerant and diverse society.
So. Now the T-shirt.
In October Abhishek Phadnis wrote:
“The right of each person to dress … as they choose has been at the core of the cohesion of our multicultural society”
– Jay Stoll, General Secretary, LSE Students’ Union, September 18, 2013
“The SU asked the students to cover the t-shirts in the interests of good campus relations”
– Jay Stoll, General Secretary, LSE Students’ Union, October 4, 2013
The trouble with advertising yourself as an institution for people who enjoy being “challenged intellectually, socially and personally” is that some of us will actually believe it, and expect you to live up to that promise by being a haven for free inquiry and free expression.
This was the delusion under which Christian Moos and I set up our Atheists’ Stall at the LSE Freshers’ Fair on Thursday morning, wearing t-shirts featuring an award-winning comic strip known for its crisp satires of the monotheisms. In this way, we hoped to greet our new members with a popular and light-hearted lampoon. Then political correctness caught up.
The London School of Economics Student Union (LSESU) will tell you that its scandalous crackdown was prompted by concerns that our t-shirts jeopardised “good campus relations” and the “spirit of the Freshers’ Fair”. Perhaps some of this bonhomie was lost in translation, because where a polite request would have sufficed, we were subjected to an ambush.
At noon, the Community and Welfare Officer Anneessa Mahmood barged in and began ripping our publicity material off the wall, while her companions, the Deputy Chief Executive Jarlath O’Hara and Anti-Racism Officer Rayhan Uddin, demanded we take off our t-shirts on pain of being hauled bodily from the premises. Their Kafkaesque refrain was that the t-shirts were “offensive” to some students and that an explanation would be provided at some point after our eviction.
We stood our ground, protesting our innocence, and so Paul Thornbury, the Head of LSE Security, was summoned to inform us that we were not behaving in an “orderly and responsible manner”, and that our wearing the t-shirts could be considered “harassment”, as it could create an “offensive environment”, which is an absurd claim to make of wholly innocuous t-shirts whose writing, in any case, is obscured unless you stop, stare and squint at the right angle while the wearer is still. And that’s if you visit the Atheist Society Stall, never the most popular hangout for deeply religious people anyway.
Mr Thornbury was unmoved by our arguments, and had us surrounded by security guards, with the warning that should we disobey his command, we would be dragged out. Browbeaten and awaiting a clearer interpretation of the rules, we said we would temporarily put on our jackets, and so in a surreal sequence, the Head of LSE Security hovered about us like a short-sighted tailor, assessing whether we had concealed enough, pausing to protest at one point that the word “prophet” was visible from a certain angle. He then deputed two guards to stand in the aisle, facing our stall, to stop us attempting to take our jackets off and to shadow us wherever we went till closing time.
It became more ridiculous.
We wrote overnight to LSE Legal and Compliance, seeking an explanation and a legal justification for our treatment. No adequate clarification was forthcoming, and so the next morning, we arrived at the Fair having covered the front of our t-shirts with tape bearing the word “censored”, so that you’d now have to visit our stall, stop, stare, squint for several seconds while we were still and then ask us what was beneath the tape, and we’d have to explain it, before you could make out the innocuous depiction. But we reckoned without the bloody-mindedness of the SU.
Shortly after midday, Deputy Chief Executive O’Hara descended on us, demanding we take the t-shirts off as per his instructions of the previous day. We explained to him that we had redacted them this time, and offered to use our home-made tape to cover any other areas he wished to see covered. Our concessions came to nought. He refused to hear us out, and left, warning us that he was summoning LSE Security to remove us from the premises.
Surprisingly, several hours passed before their next move (a curiously tardy response for an administration purporting to counter harassment), in which Mr Thornbury reappeared near closing time, armed with a letter from the School Secretary Susan Scholefield, which claimed that since some students found our t-shirts “offensive”, we were in possible breach of the LSE Harassment Policy and Disciplinary Procedure. It claimed that our actions were “damaging the School’s reputation” and concluded by asking us to “refrain from wearing the t-shirts in question and cover any other potentially offensive imagery” and warning us that the School “reserves the right to consider taking further action if warranted”. On our way out at closing time, we saw Mr Thornbury, General Secretary Stoll and Deputy Chief Executive O’Hara skulking in the corridor, accompanied by a posse of security guards. They shadowed us to the exit.
…Forcing us to cover up a harmless likeness of the prophets amounts to demanding we obey religious law to avoid upsetting the religious. What is the freedom of expression if not the freedom of the heretic who thinks differently?
Our critics contend that we were being needlessly inflammatory. Quite apart from the cliché that the people who rule over us are the people we cannot criticise, do these people genuinely think it is a waste of time and effort defending freedom of expression from religious reactionaries? Could they suggest a better cause? Perhaps they will be swayed by the fact that the gifted cartoonist whose t-shirts we wore publishes his work under a pseudonym because of threats to his life.
(One thing stands out: LSEASH seem in danger of being defined not by what they are but by what they are not. In the battle of ideas, you need to bang your own drum for what is you are offering not just what you are rejecting.)
But they were right. A t-shirt is not a hate crime.
Jay Stoll, LSE SU General Secretary, replied:
Joint statement from LSE and LSE SU
At the LSE Students’ Union Freshers’ Fair on Thursday 3 October two students from the LSE SU Atheist Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH) wore t-shirts that were clearly designed to depict Mohammed and Jesus in a provocative manner.
The Students’ Union, which runs the event, received a number of complaints from other students.
The SU asked the students to cover the t-shirts in the interests of good campus relations. The society remained free to share their literature and views.
One member of the society declined to do this. The student was attended by a cameraman and it was feared that his behaviour would disrupt the event.
The SU referred the matter to the School. Representatives of the School in attendance agreed that the matter was a cause for concern and that the presence of the t-shirts was in danger of eroding good campus relations and disrupting efforts to run a Freshers’ Fair designed to welcome all new students.
LSE is committed to promoting freedom of expression and is known for its public events and wide range of speakers. In this instance, it was judged that the actions of the students were undermining what should have been a welcoming and inclusive event.
He said that with a straight face. His is not a work of parody.
And then the LSE realised it look sad and pathetic. It apologised:
The London School of Economics and Political Science has today apologised to two students from the LSE Students’ Union Atheist Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH) who wore t-shirts depicting Mohammed and Jesus at the SU Freshers’ Fair on 3 October 2013 and who were asked to cover their t-shirts or face removal from the Fair. The Director of the School, Professor Craig Calhoun, has written to the students acknowledging that, with hindsight, the wearing of the t-shirts on this occasion did not amount to harassment or contravene the law or LSE policies.
The two students, Mr Chris Moos and Mr Abhishek Phadnis, formally appealed to the School on 12 November.
Professor Calhoun has also acknowledged the difficulties faced by staff dealing with the matter on the day: “Members of staff acted in good faith and sought to manage the competing interests of complainant students and yourselves in a way that they considered to be in the best interests of all parties on the days in question.”
The School recognises that this apology will occasion debate and discussion. LSE and the LSE SU have already put on record concern over the nature of some of the social media debate on this matter in the past, which has been highly personalised. It is hoped that this will not be repeated. LSE takes its duty to promote free speech very seriously, and as such, will discuss and learn from the issues raised by recent events.
Well, good. Sense won. But the assault on free speech goes on. It’s either free or it isn’t. No buts…