A pick’n’mix attitude to free speech

Many have rallied around a Cambridge student disciplined for publishing an anti-Islamic cartoon. What about other instances of campus censorship?

A British student has found himself in serious trouble for reprinting one of those Mohammad cartoons that caused a worldwide stink last year after being published in Denmark.

The offending student was guest-editing Clareification, the student magazine of Clare College, Cambridge. He retitled a religious satire special of the magazine Crucification. Alongside mocking various religious beliefs, the magazine reprinted a derogatory cartoon of Mohammad next to a picture of the president of the Union of Clare Students. Readers were invited to suggest which was a ‘violent paedophile’ and which a ‘prophet of God, a great leader and an example to us all’ (1).

Many Clare students reportedly complained to the college authorities. Muslim organisations within and without the university complained, too. The university authorities acted swiftly, with seemingly scant regard for freedom of speech or academic freedom: they reassured complainants that the material published in Crucification was totally unacceptable and that the student responsible for publishing it would be punished.

Senior tutor Patricia Fara said: ‘Clare is an open and inclusive college. A student-produced satirical publication has caused widespread distress throughout the Clare community. The college finds the publication and the views expressed abhorrent. Reflecting the gravity of the situation, the college immediately began an investigation and disciplinary procedures are in train.’ (2) Calum Davey, president of the Union of Clare Students, offered sincere apologies for any offence caused by the magazine. The student responsible has now been disciplined by the college and even questioned by the police (3).

Thankfully, there has been some outcry over the university’s and the union’s censorious response to the controversy. Satire of all sorts has long been pursued on college campuses. Consider, for example, those Oxbridge students who went on to produce Monty Python. Various commentators, including in the New Statesman and the Guardian, some motivated by their respect for satire and hostility towards religion, have rushed to defend Crucification against the Clare authorities.

Clamping down on satire, no matter how offensive it might be to some, is antithetical to the spirit of the free exchange of ideas that should be the bedrock of intellectual life. New ideas or arguments, or views that challenge received wisdom, will always offend someone or other. So whether an individual, or group of individuals, feels offended by published material ought never to be the basis on which something is judged, and certainly not the basis on which things are censured. That makes the rest of us – the majority – beholden to the sensitivities of small groups of often over-sensitive souls.

And yet, there is something problematic in the defence of Crucification and the way it has been posed. Why has this episode of university censorship won the ire of various liberal commentators while other instances of authoritarianism on campus generally pass by unquestioned?

Firstly, some commentators seem drawn to the Clare College story because it involves mocking religion, and they passionately believe we should have the freedom to do that. Yes, we should, but do we have to always debate religion in a seemingly childish and unsophisticated manner, such as by republishing those rather silly and anaemic Danish cartoons? As has been argued on spiked before, those cartoons do not represent the last word in free speech – and following around their republication for signs of censorship risks elevating these daft illustrations to the highest standard of freedom of expression today. Of course, we should have the right to publish them without censure, but it is questionable whether doing so contributes anything positive to intelligent and rigorous debate in the twenty-first century (see Those cartoons: a caricatured argument, by Mick Hume).

Secondly, some of the critics of the Clare College authorities are hugely inconsistent and fickle in their attitudes to free speech. For example, the National Secular Society (NSS) attacked the actions of Clare College, while stating: ‘We would have heartily joined the condemnation if the satire had been racially motivated, but according to the reports we have read, the issue of Clareification in question was devoted to religious satire.’ (4) So the NSS would have ‘heartily’ rallied behind a ban of allegedly racist material. This is hardly a ringing defence of free speech. It merely shows that the NSS has a pick-and-mix attitude to free speech, where it sees offending religious minorities as acceptable but offending ethnic groups as something that should be banned. You, like me, may have no time whatsoever for racists – but we should recognise that censoring racially motivated satire is still censorship. The NSS, like other commentators who have rushed to defend the Clare student and the magazine, have more in common with the censorious Clare authorities than they think.

Today’s inconsistency in defending free speech can be seen in the fact that, while many are willing to criticise Clare College, there has been much less criticism of the campaign, led by students, to have Oxford Professor David Coleman sacked because of his views on immigration (see If we want open borders, we need open debate, by Maria Grasso and Lee Jones). Commentators who may feel comfortable with the mickey being ripped out of religion are far less comfortable defending the right of a professor to hold views with which they disagree. So while they defend the Clare student from censorship they effectively give the nod to those Oxford students demanding censorship.

While there is much that is positive in the defence of the right to satirise over the Clare College incident, at the same time other issues are being sectioned off from rowdy debate and satire. If free speech on campus is to mean anything, then it must mean free speech for everyone – satirists, anti-immigration professors, and yes, even those whose views are ‘racially motivated’.

(1) See The Timesreport on the incident

(2) Cambridge Evening News

(3) Index on Censorship

(4) See the NSS statement

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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