Your Speech Has Been Weighed In The Balance And Found Wanting

Politics & Current Events

A couple of weeks ago I described events at University College of London, where the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society got in trouble with the Student Union because it posted a "Jesus and Mo" comic on its Facebook page.

That incident demonstrated that the "we have a protected right not to be offended" sentiment survives and even thrives.

It ain't over yet. The controversy has spread to the famous London School of Economics, where the local Atheist Secularist and Humanist Society posted the same "Jesus and Mo" comic on its Facebook page in solidarity with their UCL chapter, and received an even stronger response from the local Student's Union: a threat that they could be expelled from the Student Union unless they took it down. The LSE Student Union's statement on the matter is a master class in the mindset of censorious bureaucrats; indulge me and read it in full, with my emphasis:

On Monday 16th January it was brought to our attention via an official complaint by two students that the LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society posted cartoons, published by the UCLU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society, depicting the Prophet Mohammed and Jesus "sitting in a pub having a pint" on their society Facebook page. Upon hearing this, the sabbaticals officers of the LSESU ensured all evidence was collected and an emergency meeting with a member of the Students' Union staff was called to discuss how to deal with the issue. During this time, we received over 40 separate official complaints from the student body, in addition to further information regarding more posts on the society Facebook page.

It was decided that the President and other committee members of the LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society would be called for an informal meeting to explain the situation, the complaints that had been made, and how the action of posting these cartoons was in breach of Students' Union policy on inclusion and the society's constitution. This meeting took place on Friday 20th January at 10.30am. The society agreed to certain actions coming out of the meeting and these were discussed amongst the sabbatical team. In this discussion it was felt that though these actions were positive they would not fully address the concerns of those who had submitted complaints. Therefore the SU will now be telling the society that they cannot continue these activities under the brand of the SU.

The LSE Students’ Union would like to reiterate that we strongly condemn and stand against any form of racism and discrimination on campus. The offensive nature of the content on the Facebook page is not in accordance with our values of tolerance, diversity, and respect for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or religious affiliation. There is a special need in a Students' Union to balance freedom of speech and to ensure access to all aspects of the LSESU for all the ethnic and religious minority communities that make up the student body at the LSE.

All the tropes of the censorious bureaucrat are there: leaping into action to bring petty power to bear, inquisitorial demands about the reasons for speech, and a bold pronouncement that free expression must be "balanced" — the balancing to be done by petty bureaucrats — against open-ended, vague, and unprincipled anti-discrimination principles. All of this was a result of a cartoon, on an organization's own Facebook page.

There are two ways to approach this phenomenon in the university. One way is for student organizations to abandon student unions and their petty speech-policing martinets and go their own way at the cost of funding and facilities. Student union funding has often been used as a weapon to suppress disfavored speech and association, and American courts have sometimes supported that use — as when the Supreme Court recently ruled that public schools could use anti-discrimination principles to de-fund religious groups unless they allowed non-believers to take leadership positions. This is a hard path — that student union money and those student union facilities, meager though they may be, can be essential to getting an organization off of the ground.

The other approach is to speak out, forcefully, and call out the bureaucrats who use their petty power to suppress expression they don't like under the thin guise of anti-discrimination principles. The seeds of the student unions' destruction lies in their own hubris, their own words. Ask any student: do you really trust student union leaders to "balance" your right to speak against whatever they feel is important on any given day? Ask any student: what sort of puerile, sanitized campus will you have if the student union defunds any group that ever says anything that anyone could find objectionable? Ask any student: do you really think, for even a moment, that the student union will weigh speech in the balance even-handedly? The London School of Economics Student Union condemns and censors a satirical cartoon on a humanist site — but do you think that those same student union members will lift a censorious finger to condemn or discourage actual threats of violence by people who claim offense at such discourse?

The survival of core cultural values like robust freedom of expression depends upon you — and people like you — calling out and condemning the censors of the world. I'd like to see the specific LSE Student Union leaders who took this action named and shamed worldwide. What can you do to help?

Hat tip to Ophelia Benson.

Edit: Via the comments, two more posts about the incident: the LSE Student Union paper, and Legal Cheek.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

15 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Lambert  •  Jan 24, 2012 @10:38 am
  2. Dustin  •  Jan 24, 2012 @12:04 pm

    "The survival of core cultural values like robust freedom of expression depends upon you — and people like you — calling out and condemning the censors of the world."

    That's the bottom line.

  3. David  •  Jan 24, 2012 @12:10 pm

    Many many chuckles, a Far Side.

  4. John Kennedy  •  Jan 24, 2012 @1:24 pm

    uh, can someone explain to me what is "racist" or "discriminatory" about Jesus and Mo having a beer (they appear to be drinking a Guiness…mmmm.yum). I would think that Jesus and Mo having a beer together sends a good message, at least that's how I interpret this. You know, a cant we all get along kind of thing.

  5. Dan Weber  •  Jan 24, 2012 @1:58 pm

    There are kids who get involved in the newspaper group, or the dance group, or the computer group, or the photography group, or the lockpicking group. These students do so because they are interested in the subject matter.

    Then there are students who head up the student union. Their main interest is managing other student groups. This position should be denied to anyone who actually wants to hold it.

  6. Goober  •  Jan 24, 2012 @3:15 pm

    I've often thought, Mr. Weber, that the mere desire to run for political office should be a disqualifying flaw in a person's character. What is one to do? Draft the unwilling into service?

    The Student Union is no different. We are talking about a group in which the desire to be part of said group should be considered a diqualifying flaw on the individual trying to sign on.

  7. C. S. P. Schofield  •  Jan 24, 2012 @4:02 pm

    When I was on and around the Johns Hopkins undergraduate campus I hear of a period in the late 1970's when agents of the Hopkins Science Fiction Association managed to accumulate a huge amount of campus political power and effectively took over the student government for a few years. At one point HOPSFA held proxy votes for organizations as wide ranging as the Gay Students Organization and the Young Republicans. Eventually, with the connivance of certain key Faculty as I understand it, there was some sort of coup, and control of the student government was returned to the usual dog's breakfast of incipient politicians, Big Names On Campus, and suchlike. Pity.

  8. Rick C  •  Jan 24, 2012 @5:03 pm

    John Kennedy, anything that offends certain Muslims is deemed by them to be racist, in spite of the fact that Islam is a religion, not a race.

  9. Acleron  •  Jan 25, 2012 @3:02 am

    John Kennedy – This is just a puerile attempt by the Union officers to conflate racism, which implies discrimination, with offensiveness, which does not.

  10. markm  •  Jan 25, 2012 @4:36 am

    JK: Many Muslims consider drawing Mohammed drinking alcohol to be doubly offensive.

    1. Mohammed banned alcohol.

    2. The Torah/Christian old testament bans the worship of graven images. Mohammed took that further – to the point that many branches of Islam avoid any representation of the human form, and even all non-abstract art.

    3. Also, the alarmingly large numbers of Muslims who seem to be batsh** crazy might take offense at the mere suggestion that Jesus and Mohammed could sit down peacefully together.

    None of these are a good reason for official recognition of the muslim's sense of offense – especially in a nation where the established religion is Christian, decorates its churches with images of Jesus, and celebrates mass with wine…

  11. matriarch918  •  Jan 25, 2012 @9:33 am

    I have to ask, Ken, if there is a subtle reference to Daniel chapter 5 and the handwriting on the wall hidden in your title?

  12. David  •  Jan 25, 2012 @4:38 pm

    @matriarch918. Yes, that was his allusion. It was mine, too, in a subsequent comment.

  13. Unity  •  Jan 25, 2012 @5:17 pm

    With your legal background, you might interested to know that the LSE Student Union currrently believe that they can run a general meeting and introduce rule changes to shaft the Atheist Soc, on two days notice and on the back of a set of byelaws which contradicts their own Articles of Association on, amongst other things, notice periods, quora and voting procedures.

    As my professional field is organisational governance of charities and non-profit organisations under UK law, ASH has now received some detailed advice (pro bono, natch) on where all the holes in LSESU's rulebook are and how to use them to invalidate the meeting and any idiot motions they try to pass, plus how to use the university's statutory duties – they have legal duty to ensure the SU operates in a fair and democratic manner adn to protect free speech on campus within the law – in order to make the SU's life extremely interesting if they don't see sense and back off.

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