Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Jesus and Mo

The Liberal Democrats have got themselves into another terrible mess, only this time the issue has to do with religion and freedom of speech.

The 'problem' stems from a tweet by a Liberal Democrat, Maajid Nawaz, which contained a cartoon of Jesus and Mo (the prophet Muhammad) - the logic of Maajid's actions being that he was not offended by the cartoon and wanted to be able to speak about such issues freely  without people accusing him of blasphemy.   

Writing in the Guardian, Maajid Nawaz, defends the original tweet by explaining his intention was "not to speak for any Muslim but myself" hoping that his tweet would send a message that Muslims are capable of dealing with issues that they dislike or disagree with, while remaining calm and rational, before adding:

"My intention was to carve out a space to be heard without constantly fearing the blasphemy charge, on pain of death. I did it for Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab who was assassinated by his bodyguard for calling for a review of Pakistan's colonial-era blasphemy laws; for Malala Yusufzai, the schoolgirl shot in the head by the Taliban for wanting an education; and for Muhammad Asghar, a mentally ill British man sentenced to death for 'blasphemy' last week in Pakistan."

Some hope.

Because unfortunately for Maajid Nawaz, who is standing as a candidate in the Westminster constituency of Hamstead and Kilburn (London), his hopes were quickly dashed as a campaign was started by another Lib Dem activist, Mohammed Shafiq, who called on Nawaz to apologise for the original tweet and have him dismissed as a Lib Dem candidate.

Now this is supposed to be the 'liberal' party for God's sake (if that's not an offensive term - so just who do these people think they are behaving like like a 'lynch mob' and by calling for somebody's head, metaphorically speaking of course.

I've posted one of the Jesus and Mo cartoons which is making a serious point about the nature of religious belief in modern society - and the role played by a succession of prophets down the ages including the founder of the Mormon religion, Joseph Smith.

So if the Lib Dems don't stand up to this bullying behaviour within their own ranks, they will have ceased to be a liberal party as far as I'm concerned. 

Free Speech (20 October 2013) 

Daniel Finkelstein picked up on the theme of a previous post from the blog site - the behaviour of 'sanctimonious little prigs' at the London School of Economics (LSE) - in the regular column that the Fink writes for the Times newspaper.

Quite right too because if religious fundamentalists had their way, they would if they could shut down completely any criticism of religion - they would ban films like Monty Python's Life of Brian, burn books like The Satanic Verses and even issue religious fatwas authorising the murder of authors like Salman Rushdie.   

Never empower people who hate freedom

By Daniel Finkelstein

Restrictions on free speech nearly always spread, becoming tools of the intolerant and the illiberal

It’s more than 30 years since the death of Robert McKenzie and you may have forgotten who he is, if you ever knew. Yet when, as a teenager, I met the presenter of the BBC election programmes he was the most famous person I’d ever encountered. He was destined to play an important role in my life.

When I first came to the LSE as an undergraduate I was surprised to find that, in such a political place, there wasn’t a debating society. I decided to set one up. I’d invite some big figures. It would be fun. I had, for instance, the idea of asking Roy Jenkins, Clive Jenkins and Patrick Jenkin to debate “Which Jenkin(s) for Britain?”.

The trouble was, I didn’t know any politicians or public figures. However, I did pass the office of Bob McKenzie, an LSE sociology professor, on my way to the cafeteria every day and I figured, well, he knew everyone. Perhaps he could help. So I went to see him. And this is when the professor changed my life. He said no. No, he couldn’t help. Or at least he could, but he wouldn’t.

Actually, it wasn’t as straightforward as that sounds. He was encouraging, but also tough. He said that the LSE student union had adopted a policy of banning speakers from campus if they were “racist or sexist”. As a result, the leading Conservative Sir Keith Joseph had been hounded out of the school. The professor wasn’t going to invite any of his friends to the LSE until he could be certain that wouldn’t happen. If I wanted his assistance, I would have to persuade the student union to drop the policy.

So began my commitment to what has turned out to be a lifelong cause. I saw the professor’s point immediately and began a campaign for free speech. In time, this took me out of the Left altogether and I never went back. Before the campaign made its final breakthrough, LSE students had banned the Home Office minister Timothy Raison (immigration control was racist), the Hot Gossip dance troupe (racist and sexist) and the Israeli Ambassador (Zionism is racism). Very sadly, when victory was already in sight, Bob McKenzie died.

Yet in the end, we won. LSE students voted down the policy. And in 1986 the Government included a section in the Education Bill that guaranteed free speech in universities, outlawing such bans in future.

Unfortunately, the issue has never quite gone away. From time to time someone in a university somewhere takes it into their head to start banning things again. And such was the case a little more than a week ago, in, wouldn’t you just know it, the LSE.

At the Fresher’s Fair, the students running the Atheist Society stall wore T-shirts displaying a well known satirical cartoon strip called Jesus and Mo. The identity of the characters is not explicit, but the strip pokes fun at religion. The humour isn’t crass but it is pretty pointed. Someone — perhaps more than one person — complained. The Student Union called in the school authorities, the school then called in security. The T-shirts had to be covered up or removed.

Small incident though this may appear to be, I think it teaches some big lessons. It is important in itself in terms of free expression in universities, and it is important beyond universities.

To start with, it teaches something that ought to be obvious, but somehow isn’t. The people who end up in control when freedom is restricted are those people who do not like freedom.

When I was at college, the Left always argued that their bans protected freedom. They were trying to keep out fascists. This sounded well-meaning (although I don’t think it was) but whatever the intention, it was never going to have a benign effect. Bans become tools for intolerant people to prevent tolerant people from expressing themselves.

There was a sort of grim inevitability about the fact that when bans returned to the LSE, it would be fundamentalists oppressing liberals.

The second big lesson is more important still. The LSE authorities were aware of their responsibility to protect free speech under the 1986 Act. However Section 26 of the Equality Act 2010 seemed to put the school under another obligation, one that clashed with the protection of free speech.

They felt constrained under the Equality Act to prevent harassment. The legislation defines harassment as an act that might violate someone’s dignity or create a hostile environment “related to a protected characteristic”. One such protected characteristic is “religion”. The school judged that in the context of an event welcoming all students, the T-shirts breached the Act. They had to go.

I think this judgment was horribly mistaken, but it wasn’t malicious. And that is why it teaches a lesson. It shows how law works.

The balance between the 1986 and 2010 Acts wasn’t weighed by lawyers using case law and thinking about Parliament’s intentions. It was probably made by a professor acting in a hurry in response to a student complaint. He may have mixed in his political ideas, a desire to calm things down and a splash of legal awareness and reached a decision.

I don’t suppose, if they had debated the question, Parliament would ever have reached the absurd, even sinister, conclusion that the law should forbid students to wear the T-shirts. But they hadn’t debated the question, they’d just left broad gauge laws for laymen to interpret. As was bound to happen, the interpretation ended up being excessively cautious, and insufficiently sensitive to the freedom to be a nuisance.

What happened at the LSE matters because of its implications for academic freedom and free expression in the public square. It would be a disaster for free speech if other authorities, not just universities but theatres and councils and others, followed this lead. Perhaps some already do. If so then Parliament will have to revisit the 2010 Act to make sure they do not.

And it matters, too, because of the debate on press freedom. Those who want a “dab of statute”, just a tiny bit you know, nothing to worry about, think they are the knights in shining armour, the defenders of the weak. In the end, however, restrictions on freedom of speech always spread, becoming the tool of the intolerant and the enemy of liberal engagement. The idea that because the originators feel themselves well-meaning the result will be benign is awe-inspiringly naive.

Nor will a press law remain strictly within its original boundaries. Laws don’t work like that. They are interpreted by laymen who want a quiet life. They are used by agitators who seize their chance. They are expanded by judges trying to solve legal puzzles and extend their own discretion. They drift and with it freedom of expression drifts away.

This sort of drift can’t be prevented entirely. Yet you can guard against it. The right thing to do is to side always for free speech against encroachments upon it even from the well-meaning. The lesson I learnt from Bob McKenzie all those years ago.

Freedom of Expression (10 October 2013)

According to this news report in the Independent, freedom of speech and freedom of expression seems to be getting a most peculiar interpretation at the London School of Economics (LSE). 
I have to say I can't anything 'offensive' or 'intimidating' or 'likely to cause harassment' in the T-shirts and so for the LSE to call in its legal and compliance team - along with its head of security - suggests to me that the Student Union has lost all sense of perspective. 

Or maybe, as Richard Dawkins says, the Student Union is just full of sanctimonious little prigs.

'Sanctimonious little prigs': Richard Dawkins wades into row as LSE atheist society 'banned from wearing satirical Jesus and Prophet Mohamed T-shirts'

Students threatened with ejection by LSE security for 'offensive' clothing


The London School of Economics is embroiled in an increasingly bitter fight over free speech, after members of its atheist society were forced to cover up satirical T-shirts depicting Jesus and Prophet Mohamed at a Freshers’ fair on Thursday.

Security guards and SU officers threatened two representatives of LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Student society with explusion after several students complained about the shirts, which featured characters from the popular “Jesus and Mo” webcomic.

Abishek Phadnis and Chris Moos at first refused to remove their shirts, as well as certain literature, from their stall. They were eventually confronted by a representative of LSE’s legal and compliance team, and its head of security, and told that the T-shirts were creating an “offensive atmosphere” and could constitute “harassment” – and that they were not behaving in an "orderly or responsible manner".

The two students complied, but in a subsequent written statement denied “in the strongest possible terms” that they were trying to harass other students.

They said: "As much as we respect and defend the rights of others to wear whatever they choose to wear, we claim this right for ourselves. Our right to free expression and participation in the LSE student community is being curtailed for no other reason than that we are expressing views that are not shared by others.”

They deny that any students made complaints about the shirts, and said they felt that the actions of LSE and LSESU’s staff came across as “intimidating behaviour”.

Richard Dawkins waded into the row on Friday, describing the SU reps as “sanctimonious little prigs”.

He tweeted: “I'm "offended" by backwards baseball caps, chewing gum, niqabs, "basically" and "awesome". Quick, LSE Student Union, ban them all.”

Jay Stoll LSESU’s general secretary hit back, insisting that the t-shirts had been “provocative”, and confirming that they’d received “a number of complaints”.

“The SU asked the students to cover the t-shirts in the interests of good campus relations. The society remained free to share their literature and views.

“LSE is committed to promoting freedom of expression and is known for its public events and wide range of speakers. In this instance, it was judged that the actions of the students were undermining what should have been a welcoming and inclusive event.”

Stephen Evans, of the National Secular Society, said: "There is something very disturbing about the curtailing of free speech on university campuses simply on the grounds of claimed offence. Being offended from time to time is the price you pay for living in an open and free society. If any religion is off-limits for open debate we are in a very dangerous situation."