Blast from the Past: Freedom of Expression

by Chris Malburn

As it’s another slow news day, here’s an opinion article! This is an abridged version of a speech Chris gave a couple of years ago as President of the University of Liverpool Humanists at an event on campus censorship. The purpose was to discuss the reasons to oppose censorship of even the most abhorrent of views, and when it might be acceptable to limit free expression, for the public good.

(For context, the event was soon after a controversial Islamic cleric, Mufti Ismail Menk, was refused a platform at several UK universities because of his views on homosexuality, while the Liverpool Guild of Students did not refuse him a platform. N.B. This article should be taken as a discussion piece, not as an official position!)

Through the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist & Secular Student Societies (AHS for short), I’ve had the opportunity to meet people from around the country who run groups similar to my own, and there have been an alarming number of instances where Student Unions have been willing to censor AHS societies on grounds of offense.

The most notable example would be Reading AHS, whose committee was forcibly ejected from their freshers’ fair and suspended from their University courses for displaying a pineapple named ‘Mohammed’. But they’re not the only ones: for wearing T-shirts with panels from the satirical cartoon series Jesus & Mo students at LSE were shadowed by security at their freshers’ fair and prevented from returning after stepping outside. At UCL, students faced a storm of controversy after a cartoon from the same series was posted on their Facebook group. While these actions were arguably poorly thought out, silly, and – unsurprisingly – offensive to some Muslim students at their Universities, the reactions of the Student Unions were completely disproportionate.

However, most bizarre is the case of the AHS society at Southbank University, who made posters to advertise their society featuring a well-known photoshopped version of the fresco The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo which features Adam reaching up to the Flying Spaghetti Monster (a satirical deity made of spaghetti and meatballs) in place of the Christian God. These posters were taken down with no warning by their Student Union. Upon enquiry, the SU cited Adam’s nudity as the reason for the removal of posters, but since this would also mean that they believed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel should be censored, they then cited ‘religious offense’ as the reason for their removal, despite the fact that Christian students don’t appear to have complained at the time the posters had been displayed, and so appeared to be protecting from blasphemy a God that literally no-one believes in.

It’s not just atheists who have fallen foul of censorship within Universities – talks around the country by Mufti Ismail Menk were cancelled a few months ago due to complaints made by students and LGBT societies around the country. Mufti Menk is a popular public speaker on Islam, and was due to visit the UK on a short tour of Islamic groups in the UK.

There are many videos of him presenting his opinions on youtube, which seem to be taken from the 1950s – the one entitled “Praise your wife’s cooking” being a case in point. Pink News picked up on one of these videos, in which Mufti Menk spoke against homosexuality using dehumanizing language. In the video he explains in particularly disagreeable language that according to Islam homosexuality is wrong.

I quote – “with all due respect to the animals, they [gay people] are worse than those animals … because to the animals it is an insult to them to even suggest this to them. Automatically the pigs and the dogs do not engage in this (homosexuality)”. Unsurprisingly, many people began complaining to the Universities that the Mufti was scheduled to speak at, as well as planning protests to oppose his attendance, and some Universities cancelled immediately. Leeds, Cardiff and Glasgow said he would banned from speaking on their campuses, and Oxford was quick to show that they had not officially invited him. As a result of this, the tour was swiftly cancelled by the Tayyibun Institute, and Mufti Menk didn’t appear at any of these UK venues.

While these examples might seem rather petty, they mark a very important underlying point – that there are Student Unions who are willing to censor the views of its students and their guests. To me, this seems a dangerous precedent to set. For the most part, the censored AHS societies have received apologies from their Student Unions, albeit in some cases following long, drawn-out legal action by the AHS and the British Humanist Association. To my knowledge, official apologies haven’t been made to the Islamic Societies who were due to host Mufti Menk.

This brings us on to the National Union of Students’ No Platform Policy. This policy states that members of organisations that could be described as racist or facist, such as the BNP, EDL, or the anti-Zionist Hizb ut-Tahrir can be refused a platform to speak at Universities which have this policy – this has been expanded to include others such as Julie Bindle for being transphobic and George Galloway for being a rape apologist. I see this as being rather worrying. While I vehemently oppose the prejudiced views of the people listed, I feel that they should have the right to express these views in a public forum as a matter of principle. I find it odd and perhaps hypocritical that while the views of, for instance Mufti Menk, are counter to our values in modern society, some liberation groups such as LGBT & Feminist groups, who seek to promote personal freedoms would wish to prevent others from exercising their freedom to express genuinely held beliefs. I oppose this kind of censorship for more pragmatic reasons too. Abhorrent views such racism, facism, homophobia and so on must be kept in the public eye and publicly challenged in an open and rational manner – not driven underground. Otherwise hateful sentiments may go unchecked for years before rearing their heads in the form of fully-fledged, violent and hateful movements like the EDL.

However, sometimes a pragmatic decision must be made. In the case of a Student Union, they must pick their battles – if a far right organization is threatening violence in response to an event, then it may not be possible to guarantee the safety of attendees, and the event may be cancelled. This is what happened at the Mayoral candidates’ debate here in Liverpool a couple of years ago. Where possible, measures should be put in place to allow the event to go ahead safely, but sometimes there simply isn’t the time or resources to prepare for such a threat.

As a society, we also have a responsibility to prevent the spread of misinformation, particularly if it has the genuine capacity to cause harm. For instance, the press has a responsibility to report facts rather than lies and have a legal obligation to publish retractions or corrections if their claims are found to be untrue, companies are also legally obliged to substantiate their advertising claims if challenged by the Advertising Standards Authority, and schools have the responsibility to teach in an evidence-based way as part of the national curriculum – or at least should do! This is the way it should be, as it ensures that everyone is well-informed and educated, and is capable of making good decisions for themselves as part of a democracy, when properly applied.

This wish to make sure that the population is well-educated is one of the main reasons to oppose censorship – we must be aware of all viewpoints to make an informed decision on what is a reasonable view to hold – the wish to censor dissenting or abhorrent views in public debate assumes that people are too stupid to make up their mind about what is a reasonable argument and what isn’t.

To censor on grounds of offense is absurd – particularly in the discussion of politics, religion and social issues – religious views are often at odds with other positions and with each other. The position of Mufti Menk on homosexuality was offensive to supporters of LGBT rights, but was it any more offensive to them as homosexuality is to the more traditional followers many religions? According to many different religions those who don’t follow that faith are destined for hell – a grave insult to someone of faith – so who should decide which religion’s followers have more right to be offended? Offense isn’t intrinsic in a view or action – it takes a person to be offended by something, so being offended doesn’t give a person any specific rights, and no-one has the right to not be offended.

Universities are places for education, in integral part of which is open and honest debate and the discussion of ideas – no topic should be out of bounds, and nothing should be held as too sacred to question in the world of academia. To anyone who would wish to censor – who are you to decide what other people can and cannot say, and who are you to decide what other people can and cannot hear?

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