Your Speech Has Been Weighed In The Balance And Found Wanting
A couple of weeks ago I described events at University College of London, where the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society got in trouble with the Student Union because it posted a "Jesus and Mo" comic on its Facebook page.
That incident demonstrated that the "we have a protected right not to be offended" sentiment survives and even thrives.
It ain't over yet. The controversy has spread to the famous London School of Economics, where the local Atheist Secularist and Humanist Society posted the same "Jesus and Mo" comic on its Facebook page in solidarity with their UCL chapter, and received an even stronger response from the local Student's Union: a threat that they could be expelled from the Student Union unless they took it down. The LSE Student Union's statement on the matter is a master class in the mindset of censorious bureaucrats; indulge me and read it in full, with my emphasis:
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.
All the tropes of the censorious bureaucrat are there: leaping into action to bring petty power to bear, inquisitorial demands about the reasons for speech, and a bold pronouncement that free expression must be "balanced" — the balancing to be done by petty bureaucrats — against open-ended, vague, and unprincipled anti-discrimination principles. All of this was a result of a cartoon, on an organization's own Facebook page.
There are two ways to approach this phenomenon in the university. One way is for student organizations to abandon student unions and their petty speech-policing martinets and go their own way at the cost of funding and facilities. Student union funding has often been used as a weapon to suppress disfavored speech and association, and American courts have sometimes supported that use — as when the Supreme Court recently ruled that public schools could use anti-discrimination principles to de-fund religious groups unless they allowed non-believers to take leadership positions. This is a hard path — that student union money and those student union facilities, meager though they may be, can be essential to getting an organization off of the ground.
The other approach is to speak out, forcefully, and call out the bureaucrats who use their petty power to suppress expression they don't like under the thin guise of anti-discrimination principles. The seeds of the student unions' destruction lies in their own hubris, their own words. Ask any student: do you really trust student union leaders to "balance" your right to speak against whatever they feel is important on any given day? Ask any student: what sort of puerile, sanitized campus will you have if the student union defunds any group that ever says anything that anyone could find objectionable? Ask any student: do you really think, for even a moment, that the student union will weigh speech in the balance even-handedly? The London School of Economics Student Union condemns and censors a satirical cartoon on a humanist site — but do you think that those same student union members will lift a censorious finger to condemn or discourage actual threats of violence by people who claim offense at such discourse?
The survival of core cultural values like robust freedom of expression depends upon you — and people like you — calling out and condemning the censors of the world. I'd like to see the specific LSE Student Union leaders who took this action named and shamed worldwide. What can you do to help?
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