Last Tuesday, the Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society at the London School of Economics (LSE), organised a discussion panel to debate the ‘Freedom to Offend: Academia, Human Rights and Social Progress’. The LSE, and the secularist society at the university, are particularly significant in this area: at the end of last year, university management ordered the dismantling of the secularist society’s freshers’ fair stall and the removal of two students because they were wearing ‘Jesus & Mo’ t-shirts. After uproar from atheists and free-speech campaigners, the LSE apologised and the students – Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadnis – have since been shortlisted by the National Secular Society for the Secularist of the Year award 2014.
With Phadnis in the chair, the debate got off to a powerful start. Rumy Hasan – a senior lecturer in science and technology policy research at the University of Sussex – passionately declared that freedom of speech is under threat from the growing ‘forces of endarkenment’. Pertinently, he noted how many parts of modern society have inverted the old Enlightenment ethic: ‘I disapprove of what you say and I shall fight to the death to stop you from saying it.’
Gita Sahgal, founder of the Centre for Secular Space, added that this behaviour is leading university management to ‘pre-emptively censor’ material they deem potentially offensive, particularly to international students, regardless of its specific content. She went on to point out that the assumptions that underpin these practices are grossly patronising and utterly wrong: many of the foreign students who come to study in the UK often come to escape the restrictive laws of their home country. Ironically, the very freedoms international students come to the UK to enjoy are being curtailed in an attempt to make university life more palatable to them.
The evening provided a timely discussion on the battle over campus censorship, hosted by two individuals who have been on the frontline. However, while Moos and Phadnis should be applauded for refusing to back down when the LSE management came down on them, the logic underpinning campus censorship still needs to be confronted: nothing – whether it be jokey atheist cartoons or far-right propaganda – should be censored for the sake of protecting students from offence or dodgy ideas.
Building on last year’s victory at the LSE, British students need to make the case that free speech is either for all or it’s not free speech at all.