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Oct 05 2013

LSE threatens disciplinary action against atheists

LSE students’ union, which on Thursday tried to confiscate material from its atheist society during freshers’ fair, had security guards surround and follow members and threatened them with expulsion, has issued a public statement.

Jay Stoll, the SU’s general secretary, has the following to say about what happened:

At the LSE Students’ Union Fresher’s 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.

Here are the t-shirts. Judge for yourselves.

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 Fresher’s 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.

Banning cartoons to promote freedom of expression; trying to make people leave so as to be inclusive. Orwellian, isn’t it? And it only gets worse.

Here’s what happened yesterday, on the second day of freshers’ fair, according to society members:

In silent protest at our treatment the day before … and still unsure as to what parts of the t-shrits had allegedly caused “offence”, we put tape (with the words “Censored”, “This has been censored” and “Nothing to see here”) over the faces of the “Jesus and Mo” figures on the t-shirts.

Shortly after midday, the LSESU Deputy Chief Executive Jarlath O’Hara approached us, demanding we take the t-shirts off as per his instructions of the previous day. We explained to him that we had covered the “offensive” parts this time, and offered to use our tape to cover any other areas deemed “offensive”. He refused to hear us out, insisting that if we did not take off the whole t-shirt, LSE Security would be called to bodily remove us from the premises. He left, warning us that he was summoning LSE Security to eject us.

At about 2:30pm, Paul Thornbury, Head of LSE Security, delivered a letter from the School Secretary Susan Scholefield. The letter claimed that some students found our t-shirts “offensive”, even though we had covered up the “offensive” parts of the t-shirts. It claimed we were in possible breach of the LSE Harassment Policy and Disciplinary Procedure, and that our actions were “damaging the School’s reputation”, and “undermining the spirit of the LSESU Freshers’ Fair and good campus relations at LSE”. It 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”.

Shortly thereafter, having completed our work at the stall, we began packing up. As we were about to leave, Paul Thornbury returned to confirm we were leaving. We told him that we were, and as we left the room, we saw that he was accompanied by several security guards, LSESU General Secretary Jay Stoll and Deputy Chief Executive O’Hara. The Security officials left the building at the same time as we did, confirming our impression that they had only been there to monitor us, like the two security guards positioned at our stall the day before to stop us attempting to put our t-shirts back on.

I don’t think those t-shirts damaged LSE’s reputation. You know what I think damages its reputation? Enforcing blasphemy taboos from one conservative interpretation of one particular religion at its freshers’ fair.

It’s abundantly clear officials, when asked, couldn’t identify what parts of the cartoons the t-shirts bore were objectionable. It’s clear in particular that it wasn’t the text, which yesterday was covered. The mere fact a cartoon showing (Jesus and) Mohammad in a humorous way – not one which in any way endorsed ostracism of Muslims – was present at its freshers’ fair was enough for the union to make harassment allegations.

Previously, and prompted by Jesus and Mo cartoons’ presence on the atheist society’s Facebook page, the student union passed a ‘No to Islamophobia’ motion, designed to oppose anti-Muslim bigotry in the same way as anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, its resulting rules define ‘Islamophobia’ (a stupidly misleading term, as Marwa Berro describes here) in the following vague, unwieldy way:

a form of racism expressed through the hatred or fear of Islam, Muslims, or Islamic culture, and the stereotyping, demonisation or harassment of Muslims, including but not limited to portraying Muslims as barbarians or terrorists, or attacking the Qur’an as a manual of hatred

Tackling racist, anti-migrant, anti-Muslim sentiments is a project that, as I wrote yesterday, deserves support. (I’ve written before at length about the atheist movement’s failings here.) But this rule makes it impossible to know where prejudice ends and blasphemy begins. Muslim students, like anyone else, are entitled not to be bullied, harassed or demonised for their religion – this is a serious, credible problem. They are not entitled, any more than anyone else, to have things excised from public space which violate their faith-based taboos.

It’s clear some think a named pineapple is racist and Islamophobic; some think any cartoon depicting Mohammad, no matter how or to what end, is racist and Islamophobic. Rules made here need to distinguish between xenophobic, racist demonisation of Muslims and criticism or satire of beliefs. Events like these are what we get when they don’t, and LSE student union’s oily careerist bureaucrats seem not to see this.

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  1. 1
    John Horstman

    Mad props to ASH for their sardonic response to the censorship. Even here in USA where we have constitutionally-guaranteed rights to religious freedom by way of separation of church and state and freedom of expression, I’ve run into similar problems with public university bureaucrats’ handling of issues of religious ‘offense’. This entire debacle is sad simply because adults ought to be able to handle the nuance that differentiates racism/ethnocentrism from rational critique, and the silencing effects are all the worse.

  2. 2
    feedmybrain

    IWhats the oil drenched comment alluding to? Do they receive funding from somewhere?

  3. 3
    Alex Gabriel

    @feedmybrain (#2)

    Oh dear – I meant oily or greasy as in creeping and sinister. Better alter that!

  4. 4
    Phillip Hallam-Baker

    This is the students union, not the LSE. Student’s unions have a lot of autonomy in the UK but they don’t have any disciplinary powers beyond banning a student from using the Student’s union facilities. And that type of sanction is subject to all sort of legal recourse.

    While I was at Southampton the Student’s Union banned the Pig Fondler’s Guild for two weeks over a leaflet they wrote that happened to be based on a sketch I wrote for a review which pointed out that the account of how Mary got pregnant was not exactly consensual sex.

    Long story short, the Student’s Union was eventually pushed into a corner where they decided they could ban the leaflet because it was not racist.

  5. 5
    Alex Gabriel

    @Phillip Hallam-Baker (#4)

    Actually, it’s both the student union and LSE itself: the statement cited here is signed jointly by them, and the society’s description of events cites interventions from representatives of each.

  1. 6
    Updates on student union goings-on at LSE » Godlessness in Theory

    […] Phadnis, one of the students castigated at LSE for donning Jesus and Mo t-shirts, gives his version of events in an account at Trending Central. Given the swamp of student union […]

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