Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Jesus & Mo cartoon censorship controversy reaches LSE

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The Jesus & Mo cartoon strip that has sparked controversy
at London's universities

Following the recent controversy surrounding the use of a frame from the satirical cartoon strip Jesus & Mo by the atheist student society at University College London, it has now emerged that the cartoons are at the centre of a similar dispute at the London School of Economics.

The Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society at LSE (LSEU ASH) reproduced the Jesus & Mo cartoons on their Facebook page following news of the controversy at UCL, and were yesterday instructed by their student union (LSEU) to remove them. In a statement released on the union website, LSEU explained the decision:
"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."
The atheist society have decided not to comply, and have appealed to the union to withdraw the instruction. In a statement on behalf of the society's committee, LSEU ASH president Chris Moos said:
"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."
As was the case with UCL, the LSEU ASH have received the backing of both the British Humanist Association and the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS), which have announced that they will conduct an investigation into the handling of free speech issues by student unions, with a view to providing guidance to student atheist, secular and humanist societies.

"There has been too much conflation recently of being offended and being intimidated, with the implication being that they are equivalent," explained Jenny Bartle, president of the AHS. "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."

A demonstration in defence of free expression, prompted by the student controversies and organised One Law For All, is set to take place in London on 11 February.
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