LSE Censorship – An Apology at last


You might, or perhaps might not, be aware, but at the start of term during their annual Freshers’ Fair last Oct, the students union at the London School of Economics came down upon two students like a ton of bricks. The hideous crime being purged by these self-appointed thugs was the demand that two members of the LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Student Society would be physically removed from the annual Freshers’ Fair unless they covered up t-shirts deemed “offensive”.

A member of the LSE Legal and Compliance Team and Head of Security turned up at their stall and said that the wearing of the t-shirts could be considered “harassment”, as it could “offend others” by creating an “offensive environment”.

The students eventually agreed to cover up the t-shirts but said they “completely disagreed” with the students’ union.

I blogged about it at the time .. here.

If indeed they had been wearing t-shirts that promoted violence,  racism, or something similar, I’d get it and would have supported the LSESU, but in this case the target was a t-shirt with Jesus & Mo cartoons. Curious? .. OK, here you go ….

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So, the latest news is that LSE has apologised … sort of, the LSE posted this

“The London School of Economics and Political Science has today apologised to two students from the LSE Students’ Union Atheist Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH) who wore t-shirts depicting Mohammed and Jesus at the SU Freshers’ Fair on 3 October 2013 and who were asked to cover their t-shirts or face removal from the Fair. The Director of the School, Professor Craig Calhoun, has written to the students acknowledging that, with hindsight, the wearing of the t-shirts on this occasion did not amount to harassment or contravene the law or LSE policies.

“The two students, Mr Chris Moos and Mr Abhishek Phadnis, formally appealed to the School on 12 November.

“Professor Calhoun has also acknowledged the difficulties faced by staff dealing with the matter on the day: “Members of staff acted in good faith and sought to manage the competing interests of complainant students and yourselves in a way that they considered to be in the best interests of all parties on the days in question.”

“The School recognises that this apology will occasion debate and discussion. LSE and the LSE SU have already put on record concern over the nature of some of the social media debate on this matter in the past, which has been highly personalised. It is hoped that this will not be repeated. LSE takes its duty to promote free speech very seriously, and as such, will discuss and learn from the issues raised by recent events.”

… and in reply,  Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadnis, posted this

The LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society welcomes the half-apology from the LSE for the misconduct of LSE and LSE Students’ Union staff during the Freshers’ Fair of 3 and 4 October, 2013.

Professor Craig Calhoun, the Director of the LSE, issued the apology today in response to our Appeal under the LSE’s Free Speech Code, adding that “the wearing of the t-shirts on this occasion did not amount to harassment or contravene the law or LSE policies”, and that School staff and Students’ Union Officers had “unfortunately misjudged the situation”.

Even as we welcome Professor Calhoun’s apology, we are disappointed that it took the threat of legal action to elicit an acknowledgement of our grievances, and that no apology has been forthcoming from the LSESU, whose grave misconduct began this chain of harassment. We also believe that several other lingering concerns must be put on record.

We are disappointed by Professor Calhoun’s admission that there was no “audit trail of the number and substance of complaints received”. We believe that such flippancy does not behove the LSE’s commitment to freedom of expression, and hope that the LSE will reform its procedures to better reflect this commitment. In light of the LSE’s inability to produce any evidence of complaints, we continue to believe that it is possible that there were, in fact, none, and to suspect that our real crime was to offend the politics of the officials concerned, not the sensibilities of our fellow students.

We are also disappointed that Professor Calhoun has failed to apologise for, or even acknowledge, our harassment at the hands of LSE Security and LSESU officers. We disagree with Professor Calhoun’s contention that they acted ‘in good faith’ in dealing with a ‘difficult situation’, and aver that the decisions in question were uncomplicated and taken unhurriedly, over two days. We would like to know of the punitive action taken against the LSE and LSESU staff concerned, particularly against the named senior officials of the School administration, who are guilty of more than an ordinary miscalculation.

We are also dismayed by an aside in Professor Calhoun’s decision, in which he claims he doubts that the behaviour of the LSESU officers was “a complete shock to you, particularly in light of the controversial nature of these images”. We reject this attempt to excuse the behaviour of the LSESU officers by apportioning blame to us.

We insist that the t-shirts were entirely innocuous, and that we did not wear them with the intention of causing offence, but we also maintain that genuine freedom of expression in a civilised society must protect the provocative, the offensive and the blasphemous.

We would also like to register our puzzlement at Professor Calhoun’s lament that “so much time and energy has been spent on trying to deal with this matter in the public arena before I was given an opportunity to review (the case)”. We can only wonder why Professor Calhoun did not intercede sooner himself, if only to mitigate the damage this shameful incident has done to the reputation of the LSE.

For our part, we would like to remind the public that the LSE’s treatment of us during the Fair was effected on the instructions of its Head of Legal and Compliance, Kevin Haynes, and Pro-Director for Teaching and Learning, Paul Kelly. The collusion of these high-ranking officials in our mistreatment shook our faith in the fairness of the School administration, and prolonged our deliberation over the drafting of our complaint. The media attention in the interim period was merely a reflection of the public outrage over the conduct of the LSE.

Looking to the future, we would like to know what substantive changes are being made to the LSE’s procedures and regulations to prevent a recurrence of this, and how LSE and LSESU staff will be familiarised with the relevant legislation on freedom of expression.

We thank all those who have supported us during this difficult period, and are particularly grateful for the invaluable guidance of David Wolfe QC and Tamara Jaber of Matrix Chambers, Dr Ronan McCrea of University College London, Charlie Klendjian of the Lawyers’ Secular Society, Richard Stein and Ugo Hayter of Leigh Day Solicitors, Rory Fenton of the AHS, Keith Porteous-Wood of the National Secular Society and Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association.

We hope this apology establishes a resounding precedent for freedom of expression at British universities.

The news of all this has gone viral (to the complete and utter dismay of the LSE), and the fact that the LSE has been brought into such disrepute is very much their own doing. By pandering to the sensitivities of some religious nuts, they have revealed themselves to be deeply into censorship and very much against freedom of speech.

What is a tad shocking about this ‘apology’ is that the LSE are still trying to justify their decision at the time.

There are specific human rights … freedom of thought and also freedom of speech … that are in the mix here and being attacked by the LSE pandering to this mythical right to not be offended when bad ideas and beliefs that have no evidence are challenged. I do truly hope that they have learned a valuable lesson from all of this and that both freedom of though and also freedom of speech will now be permitted to prevail as core principles that need to be adhered to.

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