The recent controversy at the London School of Economics seems symptomatic of a change away from the radical thinking institutions, like the LSE, have built their reputations on. It seems many people’s assumption is that the ideal campus is one free from anything risqué. The main organ of this transition? The Students’ Union.
The controversy took place at the LSE freshers fair. Students’ Union officials told Abishek Phadnis and Chris Moos of the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH) to cover up their T-shirts depicting Jesus Christ and the Prophet Mohammed in a satirical cartoon. The officials threatened ejection towards Phadnis and Moos if they refused to abide by the SU’s demands.
After reluctantly complying, the Community and Welfare Officer confiscated materials from the stall, before the head of security – according to the students – placed them under surveillance of two security guards (the security team did not trust the two society members to not uncover their T-shirts). When asked for a reason, the Students’ Union official said no reason needed to be given at that point; it was a reaction to complaints. After the event, members of the LSE legal and compliance team described the T-shirts as ‘harassment.’
Although two society members wearing clothing bearing satirical cartoons was possibly offensive, surely ‘offence’ and ‘harassment’ are two very different things; no one was ambushing, pestering, threatening or disturbing the faithful whilst they were meandering around the freshers fair. The stall existed purely for the interested.
Now consider the actions of the Students’ Union on the ASH society: the order to cover up your choice of clothing, the threat of ejection, confiscation without reason, and continued surveillance after the event. This seems closer to most people’s notion of ‘harassment.’ All this from a University that, in a response to the incident, still claims to “[promote] freedom of expression.” The heavy-handed approach, when denying basic expression, nullifies the friendly facade of this students’ union.
Freedom of expression, to most people, means the freedom to satire, to offend, to hold a dissenting opinion from that of your students’ union. It seems that, in many universities right now, your SU may only let freedom of expression only go as far as filming a mildly wacky ‘Harlem Shake’ video outside your SU building during peak time. The lack of imagination by these ideologues is astonishing. Why ban and censor? There are so many alternatives to combat what you don’t like. Anything from critical statements to public debates would still preserve freedom of expression while making your objections known. Censorship is easy – true – but also lazy and authoritarian.
Now, I do hope my stance on this controversy will not be mistaken for support of the T-shirt’s message. Depictions of beloved religious figures is often a sensitive area; especially regarding the Prophet Mohammed. However, I’d be equally adamant in defence of freedom of expression if it were a religious group saying something discomforting to non-believers.
However, the debate clearly goes beyond this incident. The disturbing trend of Students’ Unions willing to curb how students express themselves (see the recent controversial ‘Blurred Lines’ ban) forces us to ask – what are Students’ Unions for exactly? Do you come to university to learn how to do things, or to be told what to do? If you think the latter, than perhaps you’re missing the point of university altogether.
Jeremy Dobson (@Jeremy_Dobson)
Photo: Mikhail Dubov (Flickr)