Students have rights, their beliefs don’t.


student-rights-298x164Rory Fenton, president of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) in the UK, has a great article in the HuffPo all about what has been going on. After the rather dire actions executed by those attempting to protect specific religious students from having their beliefs criticised, the latest update is in fact good news and so a bit of common sense is finally starting to prevail.

He writes about the lunacy that has been in play …

… our member societies have borne the brunt of this confused understanding of student rights since the start of the year. At their Freshers’ Fayre in October, our members at LSE wore t-shirts featuring the satirical Jesus and Mo webcomic. Skip to the next sentence if you can’t abide grotesque offence: the cartoon depicted the two religious figures saying “Hey” and “How ya doin’?”. At the request of their own students’ union, the body surely set up to defend student rights, the university sent 10 security guardsto surround the two students and their offending cotton, demanding that they remove the t-shirts or be removed themselves. All of this without any evidence of an actual student’s complaint. The two students eventually agreed to put on jumpers, at which point a security guard was assigned to each to follow them for the rest of the day, to the point of waiting outside the toilets, to ensure the t-shirts remained covered.

So having a couple of students being stalked by security guards to police their T-Shirts was apparently acceptable, least a religious student catch a glimpse and become offended. One could only wonder what would have come next if this insanity was given free reign, perhaps fashion police to enforce the official dress code.

On a more serious note, essentially what was being censored was a very tame cartoon that poked a bit of fun at an utterly insane idea. Given that we live in a culture that is awash with multiple conflicting ideas and beliefs, how exactly does this work? Do only specific ideas get tolerated, and if so, then who gets to decide which ideas? Will political parties be permitted to call the police if somebody from some other political party dares to criticise their policies? That would never happen in the UK … right? Oh wait, it did, and the response to that lunacy was wholly appropriate.

And so just as political parties do not get a shut-down criticism, in a similar manner, religions also do not get the right to censor non-believers.

Censorship – where should we draw the line?

What makes this entire fiasco truly bizarre is this …

There is no significant pressure from religious students to censor atheists and Humanists on campus, rather universities and unions are taking it upon themselves to be offended on behalf of religious students.

Rory, then goes on to nail it in one …

free expression of religious and non-religious students are bound together, not least as many religious beliefs could be deemed offensive to any other religion. The right for a Christian to say that Jesus was the son of God is the same right for a Muslim to say he was a prophet or for me to say he was neither. The expression of all three views must be protected.

Exactly … that is spot on and that is the correct balance. Tolerance for all. There is perhaps a separate debate to be had regarding what is deemed hate speech, for example racism, misogyney or homophobia. The question is “How far do we go in permitting tolerance?”, and to that I would simply observe that tolerance for all does not necessarily include tolerance of intolerance within its scope.

So where would I personally draw the line? Well let’s work an example and see where it takes us. Below are a couple of statements – now which are OK and which are not acceptable (before you read my thoughts on that, see what you think) …

  1. Mohammed was not a prophet
  2. Mohammed was a pedophile
  3. Islam is a violent belief
  4. All Muslims are terrorists
  5. Islam should be banned
  6. Muslims will not be tolerated

The first is in fact a Christian belief, so should we censor all Christians from criticising other beliefs and asserting them as false? I’d suggest not and so that this is fine.

The second sounds highly offensive, but it is also factual. At the age of 50 Mohammed married a 6 year old. The source for that claim comes from traditional Islamic sources, and so once again permitting Christians or others to make this observation as part of their criticism of the belief should be tolerated. It may indeed be attacking an individual, but the belief asserts that Mohammed was special, and so this is essentially criticism of the belief.

The third is an attempt at criticism of a belief and it is not wholly factual, but I would argue is still something to be tolerated. It is of course true that there are strands of Islamic belief that are indeed openly violent, but there are also strands of Islamic belief that renounce all violence, so while it does attempt to criticise a belief, it can also be successfully refuted. It is simply using one bad idea in order to criticise another idea, so yes we should tolerate criticism of ideas, even if it is criticism that is not factual or true.

The fourth is not appropriate and I would argue crosses the line of tolerance into intolerance and should not be tolerated. The distinction here is that Islam is an idea, a belief, but this is not criticism of a belief, rather it is a false assertion regarding individuals who hold a belief and is simply promoting hatred of individuals who hold any variation of islamic belief.

The fifth is also an attempt to promote intolerance, and should also not be tolerated. It is indeed appropriate to ban all specific groups that openly advocate violence and intolerance, but a universal ban on every variation of Islam, a term that encompasses a vast diversity of human thought, is not appropriate.

The sixth is also not to be tolerated, because once again it attempts to attack people who hold specific beliefs.

What gets even more bizarre is the tolerance of intolerance in UK Universities

Rory also points out how this policy of shutting down criticism and giving beliefs total freedom actually ends up enabling intolerance to be promoted …

Free expression is not the only right to be lost by students to belief systems. We see misogyny, normally rightly scorned at universities, permitted on campus in the name of religious freedom. Take Bristol’s Christian Union, which forbade women from speaking at their events unless they were married, and even then only if their husband was present. Or take Universities UK’s guidance, published last November, that permitted the enforced segregation by gender of public lectures at the request of the speaker, the guidance explicitly stating that priority should be given to religious beliefs over secular beliefs like Feminism. To do otherwise would be to deny the speaker his (the guidance explicitly says “his”) right to free speech, as if to speak to a mixed-room was like asking him to levitate.

There is however some really good news

Do not dispair, there is in fact a good outcome here …

At the AHS we were able to secure pro-bono advice from a QC for our LSE members, who drafted a 15-page complaint to the university. After two months’ delay and increasing media pressure, the university caved in and gave an apology to the two students. This same 15-page document will be made available to all our members, should they need it in future. South Bank University turned a negative into a positive after we publicised their treatment of their Atheist Society, making a commitment to free speech, agreeing to promote the society and even putting posters of the Flying Spaghetti Monster on their own notice boards. We have begun a fundraising campaign, supported by Stephen Fry among others, to expand our work for next year.

So in the end common sense has finally started to prevail, and here as promised is the poster of the Flying Spaghetti Monster being displayed inside the Union’s locked poster board at South Bank University.

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