Friday, 13 January 2012

Progress in UCL atheist society's cartoon censorship dispute with student union

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This image from Jesus & Mo was used by the UCL atheist
society to promote their weekly meet-up
Earlier this week, I reported on a dispute between the student union and the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASHS) at University College London over the atheists' use of a frame from the cartoon strip Jesus & Mo on a Facebook page advertising their weekly drinks social. The story attracted an unexpected level of interest, generating nearly 300 comments on our own site and coverage by Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, the Guardian and numerous other busy websites. In addtion, a petition started by the ASHS saw 3,700+ people back the society's refusal to take down the Jesus & Mo image at the union's request.

While debate raged online, however, both the UCL union and the atheist society have been working to resolve the matter, and the ASHS have this morning announced that progress has been made, with the union agreeing that they can not ask the society to take down the image. This is explained by the society's president, Robbie Yellon, in a statement on their Facebook page:
"We feel that thanks are in order. They go to our friends at the British Humanist Association and those at the National Secular Society for their unwavering support. They go to the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies for their unending levels of advice and know-how. They go to the inspiring Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and they go to every blogger, from the marvelous individuals at New Humanist magazine, to the uncompromising Alex Gabriel. They go to every single society member, and to every one of you who signed our wall and petition in support. And of course, they go to the marvelous Mohammed Jones, whose Jesus and Mo comics have kept us laughing the whole time.

We can now tell you that the University College London Union has recognized that mistakes were made and that the initial correspondence with our society was flawed. The Union is to review its stance on such matters and has said that this will not happen again. They can no longer call on us to withdraw the image. We welcome these developments, which set an important precedent for other universities. We also feel it appropriate to recognize the swift response of the Union, which certainly helped us reach this positive conclusion.

Unfortunately, the Union has considered the possibility that posting the image might have constituted an act of bullying, prejudice, harassment or discrimination. We firmly believe in the protection of our fellow students through University and Union policy; however we cannot accept such a suggestion. They have also considered the force of our actions and unwillingness to concede. As such, the society may be risking a disciplinary hearing which could lead to the forced resignation of committee members, or disaffiliation from the Union. In light of our now constructive relationship with the Union, such an event seems unlikely, though we would ask for your support should it ever occur.

We end with an acknowledgement of just how astounded we have been by the unending support that has flooded in from around the world. Over three and a half thousand signatures in under a week is absolutely remarkable. Thank you all."
It's good to hear that this is on the way to being resolved, although it will be necessary to keep an eye on whether the atheist society faces a disciplinary hearing. As was noted in my post the other day, this was not the first time that a student atheist society in Britain has faced censorship, but hopefully this will set a precedent that will ensure free speech is protected at our universities. As the comment thread under the initial post showed, there are strong opinions on both sides of this issue, but it is something that should be discussed, not sidestepped via censorship, and if this was prevented at universities, which must be underpinned by free debate, it would be a major cause for concern.
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