Thursday, 19 January 2012

UCL atheist society issue statement over ongoing Jesus & Mo cartoon row

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The controversy over the UCL Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society's use of an image from the cartoon Jesus & Mo, which I reported on last week, has made it into the national press today following news that the society's president, Robbie Yellon, has stepped aside.

The society's new president, Michael Thor, has issued a statement regarding the situation:
"Since the cartoon image was put up in the event page of our pub social, many things have happened very quickly. First came the complaints, the Union complaints, our petition, then the counter-petition. These events were reported by various articles and blog posts, and it doesn’t seem to stop. We are continuously being contacted to make a statement but we have a society to run and lives to get on with so we're making a statement now to mark an end to this immediate situation.
"What makes a student society is the ability to be open, foster community and - most importantly - encourage critical debate. The principal objective of our Society is to maintain a sceptical view on everything, be it astrology, numerology or theism. I am personally a strong believer of freedom of speech and I believe that it is a vitally important freedom to maintain. Freedom of speech guarantees the space for  intellectual discourse, and in that space, people should be able to say what they want, without being afraid of censorship on the grounds of offence.
"By our publication of this image there was no intention to offend and I am sorry to hear that people took personal offence when viewing it. However, "offence" was certainly inadequate grounds for the removal of the image to be requested by the UCL Union. Their policies need clarification to prevent this same situation from arising in the future.
"In the meantime, I am looking forward to maintaining the positive spirit and riveting discussions that characterise our Society on campus, both within our group and with other societies."
Meanwhile, Jenny Bartle, president of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS), emphasised the need for student unions to uphold the right to free speech:
"Our members support the freedom of speech of religious societies on campus and we would hope for the same respect from them. Our members are also committed to working with their Student Unions to secure good relations between students with different beliefs. However, Unions should must also understand that the giving of offence does not constitute harassment and when it is the incidental by-product of legitimate activities, offence is not a good reason to inhibit free expression."
This was reiterated by Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA):
"No one has the right not to have the most profound beliefs challenged – and in Universities it should surely be encouraged. We will continue to support our affiliate society at UCL as they get back to business as usual, but the use of the grounds of offence to target non-religious student groups in particular is something that we will continue to monitor." 
The story was reported today on both the BBC and Daily Mail websites, with both stories featuring a quote from Adam Walker, spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, which has objected to the use of the cartoon by the atheist society. Walker explained that the organisation will continue to protest over the matter:
"The principle is more important than who is being attacked – this time it is Muslims and Christians but in the future it could be atheists themselves.

"There is no need to print these things other than to cause offence and history has told us that these things cause offence."
"I wouldn't say we're specifically pursuing UCL atheist society, it's more about the broader principle."
 The stories also include a statement from the UCL student union (UCLU):
"The atheist society has agreed they will take more consideration when drawing up publicity for future events.

"The society was asked to remove the image because UCLU aims to foster good relations between different groups of students and create a safe environment where all students can benefit from societies regardless of their religious or other beliefs."
The manner in which this story has developed over the past week suggests that there is a degree of pressure on atheist, humanist and secular societies at universities to moderate and censor what they do in order to avoid causing offence to religious groups. Given that such censorship would clearly undermine the status of universities as forums for the free exchange of ideas, the ability of student atheist societies to express themselves freely is something humanists, secularists, and indeed anyone concerned with the right to free speech, will need to monitor closely in the coming months.
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