Expression Is Not Free

This weekend I journeyed to the centre in the freezing cold to join the Rally for Free Expression opposite the House of Lords. Here’s my flickr set, plus you can see One Law For All’s videos and photos as well (of course, in the one I’m in, I’m making a weird face). Pod Delusion have some excellent highlights in Episode 123.

It was toe-numbingly chilly, but worth it! The turnout was good and the speakers were exceptional.

What for?

Right, there have been some disturbing occurrences in some London universities lately, which I’ve yet to write about, but this is a good time to collate them and look at the (serious) problem at hand.

University College London

First we have UCL. The Atheist, Secularist & Humanist Society (ASHS) advertised for their latest pub-based meet-up, which happened to feature a frame from one of the Jesus and Mo comics – appropriately featuring Jesus and Mohammed having a pint together. Aww.

Following what seems to have been one complaint from an angry person to the UCL students’ Union, the UCLU for some reason decided it was appropriate to tell the ASHS to remove the image so that this person, and others, would not be offended.

This all went on for a while, the whole debacle involving resignation, criticism from many angles, demonstrations of support from other universities, cities and indeed countries. Fortunately it did result in the UCLU taking a step back, though the overarching expectation of censorship-to-protect-religious-sensibilities does seem to remain. It’s been a bit of a PR nightmare for UCL – and it is an important issue, well-summarised by Ministry of Truth – but things could have been worse.

Here’s Susan Zuang of the UCL ASHS speaking a bit about it at the rally:

London School of Economics

For example, as they have become at the LSE, which has effectively brought in its own form of blasphemy law following a tiny number of complaints (given the size of the LSE student body) against their ASH posting the same cartoon in solidarity with the UCL ASHS.

The situation here is far more concerning, yet seems to have escaped the media’s notice; a far more heavy-handed and outright defence of religious privilege by the LSE Student Union. I would urge any current and former students to look into this and make their feelings known.

This action by a university – a supposed forum for learning, discussion, philosophy, ideas and progress, is throwing out accusations of racism:

The LSE Students’ Union would like to reiterate that we strongly condemn and stand against any form of racism and discrimination on campus

A depiction of two historical figures sharing a pint is both racist and discriminatory? Even though subscription to a religion does not make one part of a particular race, nor is one’s participation in a society automatically indicative of discriminating against those who don’t? LSE, we are disappoint.

Edit: here’s an account of the correspondence between their ASH and the SU.

Queen Mary University of London

Closer to home for me, as a QM student myself, and an even more worrying incident.

Here are the QM ASHS representatives talking about the fear and intimidation caused when the planned lecture on Sharia Law and Human Rights was interrupted by a man threatening everyone whilst filming them on his phone:

The police were called and the lecture cancelled. Again, in a university, which should be a rich ground for debate about a huge range of topics. Fortunately, the principal has been pragmatic and reassuring.

Principal Simon Gaskell has spoken publically following reports of a disturbance at a recent meeting of the Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society, and spoke to reassure students that Queen Mary takes your freedom of expression and safety seriously.QMUL ASHS

“The democratic right to freedom of expression and debate is one Queen Mary strongly upholds and promotes. Talks, meetings and debates are held peacefully at Queen Mary on a daily basis and we will continue to host such events.

“We are equally committed to our duty of care to students. A police investigation of Monday night’s incident is currently underway and Queen Mary will conduct its own review. We will do our utmost to ensure this occurrence is not repeated and that our students are able to gather and engage in debate freely without interference of any kind.”

A short time later the principal released a further statement to all students and staff of the university, which I have reproduced below for those who would like to read it. He reiterates many of the points made by those involved in the events summarised above, and by all of us who support the people involved.

Rhys on Facebook

Finally, our friendly neighbourhood teenage skeptic strikes again. He uploaded the Jesus and Mo cartoon as his Facebook profile photo, again simply to show support for the students in London and in disagreement with the Unions’ approach.

His school later saw fit to tell him to take it down, or face some kind of disciplinary action. Tell me when it became acceptable for schools to interfere in students’ lives outside the school gates, when the matter is nothing to do with the school whatsoever and harming no one?

Here’s Rhys at the rally:

Defend Free Expression

So regarding the rally itself – the turnout was pleasingly high despite the challenging temperature.

You can listen to all of the speeches here on the Pod Delusion – with a full list of the speakers. I would particularly recommend Nick Cohen, Jennifer Hardy (as seen above, a bit), Derek Lennard, Sue Cox, Kate Smurthwaite and Joan Smith, but of course all of it if you do have time. I’ve got some more video snippets: Dawkins, Derek Lennard, Maryam Namazie.

Kate relayed a very moving anecdote about one of her students (she has taught English to immigrant classes), an Iranian woman who always seemed very committed to her religion; ensuring she always had her headscarf if any men were present, excusing herself from class to pray at the proper times and in the correct direction.

The subject at the time was adverbs of frequency (woo, grammar!) and Kate used the example:

“I never go to church”

To which the Iranian woman responded,

“But aren’t your parents angry?

“No, because they also never go to church.”

And her sincere reply was both enlightening and sad:

“So… you are free.”

Probably the most moving speaker was again Sue Cox of Survivors’ Voice, whom I have seen previously at both the Protest the Pope rally and March for Secular Europe. Sue is an incredibly brave and admirable woman who speaks out against the abuse she and countless others suffered at the hands of Catholic clergy.

She told of a survivors’ group consisting of deaf and speech-impaired individuals, who had all endured terrible ordeals as children, including one man who recalled being passed around a group of  more than 10 clergymen who treated him as “a piece of meat”.

Sue thanked all those who have supported her and the survivors’ groups, which has in part enabled them to take their protest to the Vatican itself, although it is not permitted to speak ill of the Pope himself or hold any kind of demonstration there. With the march followed by helicopters, that same man was told to put down his Ratzinger, Out! banner because it was offensive.

He put it down, picked up someone else’s placard and kept going.

Not that it needs saying, but you know what is offensive? Powerful religious institutions protecting serial child molesters while showing little to no regard for their victims (until they’re found out, and even then some still manage to give excuses and receive protection – like this from yesterday: a ‘victory’ for the Holy See as abuse victim withdraws lawsuit).

The Bottom Line

A wide range of topics were covered at the rally, from child abuse to libel reform, blaming of rape victims, corrupt politics, the nuances of comedy, and of course the censorship of students by the societies set up to support them.

The message was clear; that freedom of expression is vital to progress. Pick any paradigm shift you can think of – the Suffragettes, Martin Luther King, anything – had those people shied away from offending, we would not be where we are.

We cannot progress further if criticism and debate are stifled. The only speech that needs protecting is that which offends (and we’re not talking hate speech or incitement to violence; those are legislated against for obvious reasons – see the Holocaust or Rwanda genocides, as Nick Cohen rightly pointed out. And people need to stop pretending things fall under this umbrella when they don’t). The things that need changing are those that some people won’t want to have questioned.

Without the freedom and encouragement to ask all kinds of questions, express ideas and new ways of thinking, we cannot better ourselves or help those who cannot help themselves. We can’t oppose abuses of human rights and we can’t improve anything for anyone.

So please, lend your support to those who need it and make sure the message is clear, that we will defend free expression – since, sadly, it still appears to need it.

QM Principal’s update to staff and students:

Dear Colleagues,
The promotion of the free expression and sharing of ideas and beliefs is at the core of the university ethos. The right to free expression may on occasion be challenged, as was the case a fortnight ago on our Mile End campus.
A meeting of the Queen Mary Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society was disturbed, before the invited speaker was able to begin, by an individual, accompanied by others, who made threats against those attending the meeting should anything be said that he viewed as offensive. The same individual made a video recording of participants using a mobile phone. QM security staff attended the incident within three minutes, followed by the police ten minutes later. Understandably, the organisers decided to cancel the event.

The incident poses a direct challenge to the right of members of our university community to hear and express diverse views and the behaviour of the individuals who disrupted this meeting and made threats against participants is entirely unacceptable. At Queen Mary, we have a very clear policy and mechanisms in support of freedom of speech. Groups, such as the Students’ Union associations, who wish to invite external speakers onto campus are required to notify Student and Campus Services, who as necessary make enquiries to establish that proposed speakers have not previously engaged in illegal activity. On occasion advice is sought from the police. When colleagues in Student and Campus Services are uncertain about a specific event, I am informed and make the final decision. If no previous record of illegal activity is identified and there is no strong reason to suspect that there might be an incident of public disorder, then the event proceeds.

In taking this approach, we recognise quite explicitly that our commitment to freedom of speech is tested not by accommodating mildly controversial opinions but by tolerating views that, while not illegal, will be found distasteful or obnoxious by some members of our community. Our consistency of adherence to these principles has been tested on a number of occasions over the past year or so, as we have allowed to proceed meetings to be addressed by, for example, those with faith-based radical views to which others, both within and outside Queen Mary, take strong exception. Interestingly, when the policy is explained to those who raise objections, the common response has been that they are reassured that the policy is so firmly principle-based.

In the case of the recent meeting of the Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society, the correct procedures were followed and identified no grounds for concern over the speaker. With hindsight, we should have recognised the potential for disruption of the meeting and provided security support at the venue, and this is a lesson learned. However, what the speaker and the organisers were doing was exercising their entitlement to freedom of speech, in accordance with the principles and practices I have outlined above. Accordingly, the prevention of the event taking place was unacceptable.

Since the meeting, support has been offered and provided to the organisers of the meeting, who are understandably distressed by the threats made. We are also working with the speaker whose presentation was cancelled to make new arrangements for her to speak at Queen Mary, with the assurance of appropriate security arrangements. In making these arrangements we neither endorse nor deny the views expressed; rather we are allowing and promoting freedom of expression within the law. Furthermore, we are implicitly attributing to our university community – as surely we must – the intelligence and powers of discrimination to judge for themselves the merits or otherwise of opinions and beliefs presented to them.

The message from this institution is clear, and I hope will be reinforced by others: our commitment to freedom of expression will be evident not only in allowing the broad expression of diverse views, but by ensuring that no group or individual will deny to others the opportunity to express and argue the merits of their views. The incident at Queen Mary generated a small amount of news coverage and a modest degree of comment. Yet we should not be concerned about publicity for these issues if – as I would argue applies here – there is a story to tell of consistent adherence to fundamental principles and of actions in positive support of a right, the freedom of expression, which sits at the core of what defines a university.

3 Responses to “Expression Is Not Free”

  1. Michael W Story (@MWStory) Says:

    Great post Maz! Perhaps it is my having lived overseas as a youngster that has informed a lot of my views, but I have come to a great appreciation for the generally pro-social values of the UK and an awareness of how fragile and tiny our island of safety is in the big wide world (my Weltanschauung hardened on seeing my first burnt corpse in a street). The universities’ responses that you’ve outlined above, which mainly revolve around a terror of being racist or causing offence, are a perfect example of the kind of complacency that has to change if we are to protect the freedom we enjoy here. Every bit of horrid behaviour on the part of Islamic fundies in particular is explained away as being the result of poverty, lack of education or European oppression, but to those who are reaching for those bizarrely self referential arguments I would ask: what was the Lahore Bar Association (rich, educated, unoppressed lawyers) doing last week when those ‘threatening’ militant Atheists were planing a rally? They were voting to approve a ban on the purchase of any food product farmed, packaged, produced or wholesaled by members of the Ahmadi sect to punish them for heresy.

    When people talk about being ‘threatened’ by militant atheism, they are talking about being upset by people who just want freedom from religion. Someone asking you not to boss them around isn’t threatening you- if atheist students were turning up to religious societies’ events and photographing the participants and telling them that they would be subject to violence, then that argument might hold water.

    PS I know I always bring it up and it might not strictly be fair, but it bears any amount of repeating that when it comes to threats of violence at universities, there is a terrifying precedent: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who the members of the UCL Islamic Society chose as their president in 2006, was convicted of the attempted murder of 289 people in the name of his faith. Now I know we’re not supposed to judge current members of that group by the actions of past members and leaders, but I cannot believe that if UCL Atheists had attempted murder convictions in triple digits that their opponents would be keeping quiet about it.

  2. Jim the skeptic Says:

    If you want to see pics I took send me your email or talk to Tessa Kendall or James O Malley
    Keep up the good work
    Jim the skeptic

  3. Last February | Butterflies and Wheels Says:

    [...] has a great post on the rally, full of pictures and videos. In the second video there’s Rhys telling about his adventure in [...]


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