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 expulsion after several students complained about the shirts, which featured characters from the popular “Jesus and Mo” web comic.
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. Adding that: “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.”
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. Expressing the commitment of LSE 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.”
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.”