LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society say giving offence is no crime

23 January, 2012

The London School of Economics Student Union (LSESU) has instructed the London School of Economics Student Union Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (LSESU ASH) to remove cartoons featuring Jesus and Mohammed from their Facebook page. LSESU ASH is not complying with the instruction and has appealed to LSESU to withdraw it.

LSESU ASH President Chris Moos made a statement on behalf of the Society’s committee:

‘There are no reasonable grounds for the LSESU’s instruction because we are in no way violating their policies or byelaws. The cartoons on our Facebook page criticise religion in a satirical way and we totally reject any claim that their publications could constitute any sort of harassment or intimidation of Muslims or Christians.

‘That there was no deliberate intention to offend is illustrated by the fact that the cartoons were posted only on the LSESU ASH page and not in other spaces. But even if some people are offended, offence is not a sufficient reason for certain artistic and satirical forms of expression to be prohibited. A university should hold no idea sacred and be open to the critiquing of all ideas and ideologies.

‘We want to engage with LSESU and work with them further to resolve the situation, but not in a way that jeopardises the legitimate criticism or satirising of religious and other beliefs. That is a freedom which is indispensable.’

Jenny Bartle, president of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS), gave support to the LSESU ASH,

‘Our members are committed to working with their Student Unions to secure good relations between students with different beliefs. However, Unions must also understand that the giving of offence does not constitute harassment and when it is the incidental by-product of legitimate activities, offence is not a good reason to inhibit free expression. We will work to support our affiliate society at LSE and hope that the Union will be sensible, accept that they have overreacted, and withdraw their request.’

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA) commented:

‘The officers of LSESU ASH have clearly been reasonable in their dealings with their union and it is clearly unreasonable for a simple satirical depiction of religious figures to be deemed tantamount to intimidation of religious students. The freedom to criticise all sorts of beliefs and hold them open to satire as well as intellectual critique is a vital generator of intellectual progress – something which universities should safeguard.’

The AHS and BHA also announced that they were beginning an investigation of how Student Unions were approaching issues of free speech and offence in relation to religious and non-religious beliefs with a view to providing guidance to institutions. Ms Bartle commented, ‘There has been too much conflation recently of being offended and being intimidated, with the implication being that they are equivalent. Such an assumption is a potential threat to free speech and free debate, and we are concerned to address this underlying problem in the long term.’

For more information, please contact the BHA on 07534 248 596.