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The right to free speech at UK universities is a supposed entitlement of entering higher education to think, speak and write freely. This right is necessary for students within academia to flourish within their discipline. Yet the right to free speech is not an escape clause for individuals to speak and write freely without consequences for their views. So where does this place atheist students at UK universities?
Does free speech entitle people to say whatever they please? In brief, no. To attack, humiliate and/or demonise people is discriminatory in nature and can be interpreted as hate speech. Nevertheless, free speech is essential for a democratic nation to allow people the right to voice their opinions in relation to the functioning of their society and current affairs. For example, the media and public regularly satirise and criticise the views of politicians, and rightly so. The rights of human beings and students are protected under law. The fallible nature of ideas, views and beliefs are not and are therefore open to be challenged, questioned and criticised. Further, the right to free speech entitles individuals to question the stagnant views of religious beliefs.
Religious beliefs are protected under the Equality Act 2010: to blaspheme against religion is unlawful and distasteful in its nature. Who gave non-believes the right to argue againat religiously held beliefs? As mentioned, at UK universities students have rights and those rights are upheld to ensure that students are not inhibited at UK institutions. The individualistic beliefs of students, however, are not protected and are open to criticism due to their fallible nature. As human beings, we are all capable of making mistakes and being wrong. It is naïve to propose that one or more religious beliefs and views are true or infallible. Fore example, in Christopher Hitchens’ “God is not great”, Hitchens states that religion originates from the period of human prehistory where nobody could understand what was going on. The infantile demand for knowledge of our species and the inadequate attempt to fulfil this need is the origin of religion. Consequently religious texts are written by men: the Bible being peer-reviewed and manipulated on multiple occasions while the Qur’an has remained stagnant form the time it was written. If, for example, beliefs and ideas were not allowed to be challenged, then there would not be institutions such as universities available to students and we would be part of a mindless institution functioning to create drones to work for the future. As students we are able and are required to critically think for ourselves and the inability to do so would be an inhibition of the premise of university for students.
So how does this relate to atheist students at UK universities? Cases such as those at the London School of Economics (LSE) and London South Bank University are essential to questioning this need for free speech fr atheist students. At LSE’s Freshers’ Fair the atheist society wore Jesus and Mo T-shirts (an online cartoon, simply satire). They were told this caused offence and were escorted off the premises. The South Bank University atheist society created a satirical poster using the pastafarian spaghetti monster. Due to the offense they caused their posters were removed by the University. Both LSE and South Bank University later apologised. Why is offence to others given such a platform? Our progression within society is dependent on the ability to question the deepest held beliefs of individuals. If students, let alone just atheist students, feel unable to openly talk about their views; even if they are divisive and contradictory to religious dictation, how can society and students progress?
The right to free speech for atheist students…because ideas, beliefs and views cannot escape scrutiny, critical thinking and offence.