Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Student atheist society in censorship row with student union over Muhammad cartoon

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The Jesus & Mo image used on the society's Facebook page
Update: The dispute between the ASHS and the union has now been satisfactorily resolved. See our post dated 13 January.

The Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASHS) at University College London has become embroiled in a censorship row with the university's student union over the use of a Muhammad-related cartoon on a Facebook page advertising its weekly drinks social.

The image is taken from Jesus & Mo, a well-known web comic that depicts the title characters engaging in theological and philosophical chats while propping up a pub bar. Consistently amusing, frequently thought-provoking and often heart-warming, Jesus & Mo is anything but savage and crass, with its gentle take on the absurdity of theological differences and underlying message that humans really ought to just get along providing the perfect antidote to the violent and illiberal censorship it aims to satirise.

It would, therefore, be somewhat ironic for someone to demand the censorship Jesus & Mo on the grounds that it is offensive, but that's precisely the mistake UCL's student union have made in response to the atheist society's Facebook page. Citing a "number of complaints" regarding both the depiction of Muhammad and the fact that the image shows him with a drink that looks like beer, the union contacted the ASHS president demanding that he removed the image as soon as possible.

Having given a talk and chaired a debate on offence and censorship with the ASHS a few months ago, I know that they're a clever and inquisitive bunch who have thought long and hard about these issues, so I'm not surprised to learn that they're taking a stand against the union's attempted censorship. Pointing out that UCL was the first university in Britain to be founded on secular principles, the ASHS have refused to remove the Jesus & Mo image and have launched an online petition to defend free expression at the university. The petition, which you can sign, includes the following statement:
"In response to complaints from a number of students, the University College London Union has insisted that the UCLU Atheist, Secularist & Humanist Society remove the following image from a Facebook event advertising a pub social. It has done so on the grounds that it may cause offence to Muslim students.

This is a gross infringement on its representatives' right to freedom of expression taken by members of the first secular university in England. All people are free to be offended by any image they view. This does not give them the right to impose their beliefs on others by censoring such images.

We the undersigned urge the University College London Union to immediately halt their attempts to censor the UCLU Atheist, Secularist & Humanist Society and uphold its members' right to freedom of expression."
It will be interesting to see how the student union responds now that its attempted censorship has been made public. A request for some students to remove an image from Facebook may seem like a relatively minor issue, but the fact that a student union would take this action can be viewed as evidence of the way in which our society has become quietly accustomed to such censorship in the aftermath of the Danish cartoons controversy of 2005-6.

Writing in our current issue, the Danish academic Frederick Stjernfelt warns of the dangers of this in relation to the cowardly response of the Anglo-American press to the firebombing of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo at the end of last year, and makes a compelling case for keeping the open society open in the face of both violent and non-violent attempts at censorship. Those in charge of the student union at Britain's oldest secular university would do well to heed his call.

Update: one of the Islamic societies at UCL, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Students Association, has put out a statement arguing that the ASHS is wrong to refuse to take down the image from Jesus & Mo. The author argues that there is a difference between freedom of speech and freedom to insult, and suggests that once something has offended someone, it should be withdrawn:
 "Once a particular act is deemed to be offensive to another, it is only good manners to refrain from, at the very least, repeating that act. In this particular case, when at first the cartoon was uploaded, it could have been mistaken as unintentional offense. When certain Muslims voiced their offense over the issue, for any civil, well-mannered individual or group of individuals, it should then be a question as to the feelings of others and the cartoons should then have been removed."
Update 2: the umbrella group for atheist student societies, The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies, has released a statement in support of the UCL society, which also includes a quote from the union pointing out that there are plans to discuss the matter further with the ASHS.

I have also spoken to the ASHS, and they tell me they are planning to meet with the union with a view to settling the issue informally. They have also sought to clarify the role of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Students Association (AMSA), whose statement I linked to above. Leading atheist blogger PZ Myers picked up on this post and their statement, and his post on the subject has led some to think that the complaint about the cartoon originated with the AMSA (Myers also gives the incorrect name for that society). It did not, as ASHS president Robbie Yellon points out:
Whilst the society and I are great admirers of P Z Myers, I must correct his reference to AMSA. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Students association of UCL are not THE “Muslim Student Association” of University College London. They do not represent all Muslims at our University.
AMSA has never been anything other than reasoned and courteous towards us. They may not agree with the posting of the image in the first place, but numerous individuals of the Ahmadiyya community have made it perfectly clear that they support our inalienable right to freedom of expression. I consider those at AMSA to be our friends and, though many may disagree with the contents of their article, I do not feel it appropriate to insinuate that any of this began with them.
Update 3 (13 Jan): The dispute between the ASHS and the union has now been satisfactorily resolved.
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