LSE censorship: A first-hand account of what happened last week

“The right of each person to dress … as they choose has been at the core of the cohesion of our multicultural society”
 – Jay Stoll, General Secretary, LSE Students’ Union, September 18, 2013

“The SU asked the students to cover the t-shirts in the interests of good campus relations”
– Jay Stoll, General Secretary, LSE Students’ Union, October 4, 2013

The trouble with advertising yourself as an institution for people who enjoy being “challenged intellectually, socially and personally” is that some of us will actually believe it, and expect you to live up to that promise by being a haven for free inquiry and free expression.

This was the delusion under which Christian Moos and I set up our Atheists’ Stall at the LSE Freshers’ Fair on Thursday morning, wearing t-shirts featuring an award-winning comic strip known for its crisp satires of the monotheisms. In this way, we hoped to greet our new members with a popular and light-hearted lampoon. Then political correctness caught up.

The London School of Economics Student Union (LSESU) will tell you that its scandalous crackdown was prompted by concerns that our t-shirts jeopardised “good campus relations” and the “spirit of the Freshers’ Fair”. Perhaps some of this bonhomie was lost in translation, because where a polite request would have sufficed, we were subjected to an ambush.

At noon, the Community and Welfare Officer Anneessa Mahmood barged in and began ripping our publicity material off the wall, while her companions, the Deputy Chief Executive Jarlath O’Hara and Anti-Racism Officer Rayhan Uddin, demanded we take off our t-shirts on pain of being hauled bodily from the premises. Their Kafkaesque refrain was that the t-shirts were “offensive” to some students and that an explanation would be provided at some point after our eviction.

We stood our ground, protesting our innocence, and so Paul Thornbury, the Head of LSE Security, was summoned to inform us that we were not behaving in an “orderly and responsible manner”, and that our wearing the t-shirts could be considered “harassment”, as it could create an “offensive environment”, which is an absurd claim to make of wholly innocuous t-shirts whose writing, in any case, is obscured unless you stop, stare and squint at the right angle while the wearer is still. And that’s if you visit the Atheist Society Stall, never the most popular hangout for deeply religious people anyway.

Mr Thornbury was unmoved by our arguments, and had us surrounded by security guards, with the warning that should we disobey his command, we would be dragged out. Browbeaten and awaiting a clearer interpretation of the rules, we said we would temporarily put on our jackets, and so in a surreal sequence, the Head of LSE Security hovered about us like a short-sighted tailor, assessing whether we had concealed enough, pausing to protest at one point that the word “prophet” was visible from a certain angle. He then deputed two guards to stand in the aisle, facing our stall, to stop us attempting to take our jackets off and to shadow us wherever we went till closing time.

We wrote overnight to LSE Legal and Compliance, seeking an explanation and a legal justification for our treatment. No adequate clarification was forthcoming, and so the next morning, we arrived at the Fair having covered the front of our t-shirts with tape bearing the word “censored”, so that you’d now have to visit our stall, stop, stare, squint for several seconds while we were still and then ask us what was beneath the tape, and we’d have to explain it, before you could make out the innocuous depiction. But we reckoned without the bloody-mindedness of the SU.

Shortly after midday, Deputy Chief Executive O’Hara descended on us, demanding we take the t-shirts off as per his instructions of the previous day. We explained to him that we had redacted them this time, and offered to use our home-made tape to cover any other areas he wished to see covered. Our concessions came to nought. He refused to hear us out, and left, warning us that he was summoning LSE Security to remove us from the premises.

Surprisingly, several hours passed before their next move (a curiously tardy response for an administration purporting to counter harassment), in which Mr Thornbury reappeared near closing time, armed with a letter from the School Secretary Susan Scholefield, which claimed that since some students found our t-shirts “offensive”, we were in possible breach of the LSE Harassment Policy and Disciplinary Procedure. It claimed that our actions were “damaging the School’s reputation” and concluded by asking us to “refrain from wearing the t-shirts in question and cover any other potentially offensive imagery” and warning us that the School “reserves the right to consider taking further action if warranted”. On our way out at closing time, we saw Mr Thornbury, General Secretary Stoll and Deputy Chief Executive O’Hara skulking in the corridor, accompanied by a posse of security guards. They shadowed us to the exit.

*     *     *     *     *

The great polemicist Christopher Hitchens used to say that whenever someone complained to him that something was “offensive”, he would retort “I’m still waiting to hear what your point is”. This neatly skewers the fatuousness of such a complaint.

Our motives have been relentlessly impugned over the past two days, with Mr Thornbury and Mr Stoll rashly accusing us of wishing to cause offence. We categorically deny this, and struggle to fathom how such innocuous t-shirts, which contain neither threats, nor racist taunts, nor foul language, could support such an accusation. Forcing us to cover up a harmless likeness of the prophets amounts to demanding we obey religious law to avoid upsetting the religious. What is the freedom of expression if not the freedom of the heretic who thinks differently?

Mr Stoll later took to the LSESU’s blog to defend the LSE as a place that is “committed to promoting freedom of expression” because its public lectures feature a “wide range of speakers”. I don’t see why this should imply broadmindedness – hosting crowd-pulling contrarians is the price of maintaining your reputation as a landmark on the global lecture circuit. A truer test of a university’s commitment to freedom of expression is how it treats two lowly students summoning up the courage to stand by their principles in a dignified and understated manner.

And Mr Stoll and the School have some nerve to claim that we were threatened because “it was feared” that we would “disrupt the event”, when in fact the event was progressing perfectly smoothly until it was disrupted by the ham-fisted intervention of the student union. We strove to remain calm, pacific and reasonable, standing our ground even as we were subjected to a barrage of increasingly egregious demands and jostled by security guards. If harassment is, as the LSE Harassment Policy defines it, anything that “violates an individual’s dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”, then we were harassed.

Our critics contend that we were being needlessly inflammatory. Quite apart from the cliché that the people who rule over us are the people we cannot criticise, do these people genuinely think it is a waste of time and effort defending freedom of expression from religious reactionaries? Could they suggest a better cause? Perhaps they will be swayed by the fact that the gifted cartoonist whose t-shirts we wore publishes his work under a pseudonym because of threats to his life.

These sickly invocations for decorum are of a piece with the risible claim made by Mr Stoll and the School that their clampdown was prompted by the fear that we were sabotaging the prospects of a sanitised Fair “designed to welcome all new students”, and that our t-shirts and posters were welcome once this delicate initial period had passed. We have good reason to doubt this.

For one thing, Mr Thornbury contradicted it with his warning that we would be evicted if we were ever seen wearing these t-shirts on campus again. And just last year, our efforts to better signpost ourselves for Muslim apostates on campus by adding “ex-Muslim” to our Society’s name (on the lines of ex-Mormon groups in the U.S., and for the same reasons) were gratuitously frustrated. First, the Union ordered us to prove “clear cooperation with the Islamic Society” before they would consider our application; then, they backed out with the wet excuse that the change could jeopardise the “safety” of ex-Muslims in our group, which came as news to the ex-Muslim organisations on whose insistence we’d sought the change.

Amidst the acrimony, it would be remiss of me not to mention the countless open-minded Christians and Muslims, among them women in hijabs, who visited our stall out of curiosity, engaged us in good-natured banter about our work and accepted our invitation to the first of the many public debates we conduct with religious societies through the year. On their behalf, I accuse the LSE of slandering its religious population by allowing its most peevish elements to speak for the whole community and infantilising religious students by creating the impression that they are unable to handle gentle satire.

But it isn’t all gloom.

In one of those beautiful little ironies of life that makes even a staunch atheist like me wonder if there might, after all, be a god, the LSE student newspaper reported in its edition of October 3 that LSESU had been rated the worst Students’ Union in London, and that the LSE was ranked the fifth-worst university for crime in the UK. Would that Mr Stoll and Mr Thornbury were always so ubiquitous.

Abhishek Phadnis is a Master’s candidate at the London School of Economics & Political Science and President of the LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society.


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  • EsmonDinucci

    Good on you. The child mutilators need to rethink their ideology. Join CAMOC – the campaign against the mutilation of children.

  • Lisa Futvoye-Shepherd

    Keep your chins up, Gentlemen. Bravo!

  • Positive Mushroom (The)

    The bullish and childlike actions of those representing the LSE are utterly appalling and totally inexcusable.

    Hypocrisy is evidently their byword and their (unconscious?) mantra! One wonders how they can even attempt to sleep at night. Considering all the unarguable and blatant ills imposed upon our World by religions and people’s sheer ignorance I honestly would have hoped, (and dared to presume!), that the wearers of J&M shirts would, instead, of been nudged towards a more noticeable location and not stamped on simply due to emotive, ill-informed, puerile, rhetoric. Where do the LSE get these buffoons from?…and what’s more how can they justify seeming to ‘back them’? *shakes head in sheer, and informed, disbelief*

  • Atheism

    A beautifully written piece. We have given you a plug on our FB page. Stay strong!

    https://www.facebook.com/AtheismFTW/posts/670593089626049

  • LiamT

    well done lads!

  • Ryan McCourt

    Tweet button at the top of the page is broken.

    Courage to you all, in the face of this cowardly illiberalism!

  • Phillip Keane

    Having read the Jesus & Mo comic strips, I can safely say that “crisp satire” is being a little generous.

    How about “clumsy” satire?

    Also, I appreciate the need for people to “belong” and feel like they are part of a club, that’s one reason why religions are so popular after all…..

    I would have thought that the atheists are better than that though.

  • Phillip Keane

    and didn’t LSE have a bunch of links to the Gadhaffi regime? Don’t start crying that the school is repressing you. You should have expected this.

  • http://xstaedtler.wordpress.com/ Staedtler

    You should set up a new students’ union and demand recognition.

  • Richieboy

    *STANDS AND APPLAUDS VIGOROUSLY*

  • http://www.thecommentator.com/ Raheem Kassam

    Just tested it, seems fine?

  • Michael Gmirkin

    “Also, I appreciate the need for people to ‘belong’ and feel like
    they are part of a club, that’s one reason why religions are so popular
    after all…

    I would have thought that the atheists are better than that though.”

    You feel that Atheists should have no need for an ‘inclusive’ environment where they can meet and interact with people holding similar values and philosophies to themselves?

    I disagree. Very nearly 100%.

    It it human nature to seek discourse, friendship and community, in whatever the form: religious, non-religious, left, right, tall, short, happy, sad, black, white, rainbow colored, etc.

  • PandorasBrain

    They don’t seem to be crying, Mr Keane. They seem to be making a well-reasoned argument. It’s a pity you seem unable to do the same.

  • McJoders

    Were the LSE wrong in how this was dealt with? Absolutely. I’m not trying to excuse or condone the LSE for how they behaved- they should be rightly lambasted, criticised and exposed. No argument here.

    But should the students be heralded as heroes? Absolutely not. Trying to intellectualise a poor, sixth-form level attempt to promote an atheism society (although I have doubts this was the actual aim) is beyond belief. If this is the best a masters student can do to promote his club then there’s no hope for the future of atheism.

    It wouldn’t be so bad if there was a modicum of understanding that their actions “may” have caused offence to some people or that their tactics “may” have been wrong. Masking it as a “popular and light-hearted lampoon” and protesting “innocence” is just plain ignorant and demeans the work many people undertake to lessen the impact and harm religious ideology causes.

    Looking at a web-based comic on the internet is one thing (I’ve long had a bookmark for this site), using that imagery in public, having already acknowledged the threats the comic’s creator has faced (again- not excusing/condoning those actions) and pretending to be unaware of the subsequent reaction is infantile and smacks of self-promotion and attention seeking.

    There is nothing Kafkaesque about being told that wearing a t-shirt depicting Mohammed is offensive when they would have well known that wearing a t-shirt depicting Mohammed is offensive to many. Whether the writing was “obscured” or not the bloody image was hanging out for all to see.

    “Forcing us to cover up a harmless likeness of the prophets amounts to demanding we obey religious law to avoid upsetting the religious”. How about just respecting other people. If you’re an atheist don’t pray, don’t go to church, don’t pay a tithe, don’t insist that animals be killed in a certain way, etc, etc. But whilst your at it don’t try and be a smart-Alec and think because you can do what you want regardless of the effect on others just because your opinion is different and you have an evangelical-type need for others to know that.

    Is it a waste of time and effort defendingfreedom of expression from religious reactionaries? No, it should be applauded and those that can affect change should be celebrated. But using the tactics that demean and offend those we are trying to engage with is futile and, at worst, counter productive.

    Sorry for the rant but this whole situation and subsequent events seem to me to have been intentionally created to promote the individuals involved rather than truly promote membership to their society or the wider atheist world view. Well done lads, 15 minutes of fame achieved.

  • Owen_Morgan

    What an utterly fatuous comment. “Atheism” is not a belief, or a cause. It is the absence of belief in any deity. It doesn’t need a “future”, or have a past, for that matter, however often idiots try to turn it into an ideology.

  • McJoders

    Cheers for the dictionary definition Owen, timely as I couldn’t be bothered to google it for myself. Regardless of me being fatuous or idiotic, the fact is atheism beomes ideological due to actions like wearing offensive t-shirts and masking it as freedom of expression.

    The future I was referring to was that within meaningful dialogue and debate (you should try it sometime) with those that have religious veiws rather than confrontational tactics.

    As for a “cause” there is the very real problem of religious indoctrination and abuses relating to power and control that are present in every organised religion. If you’d rather just sit with your righteous world view, write snotty comments and regurgitate dictionary definitions go for it though

  • http://300wordtheses.blogspot.co.uk/ Gerry Dorrian

    Tom Harris, a Labour MP, put it succinctly in a recent article: “Freedom of expression is the first thing to go when dictatorship looms”.

    His piece is to do with press censorship, but I think his points are valid for your own situation:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/leveson-inquiry/10364339/Labour-should-not-be-muzzling-free-speech-with-its-support-of-the-Royal-Charter.html

  • PandorasBrain

    Do you see the irony – no, hypocrisy – McJoders in you criticising Owen Morgan for using the word “fatuous” when you proceed to use the words “righteous”, “snotty”, and “regurgitate”?

  • Jerome Brown

    Indoctrination has been the name of the game, and still is to a certain extent, in our so called free democracy. I am very pleased to see that it is getting less so as time passes and people become more aware of what is going on, how it affects their thinking, and how it is a tool used by the elite to justify their own crazy behaviour!

  • Sally Lea

    Elite behaviour! What rubbish. Live and let live, everyone can believe what they like and promote what they like and if you are offended by it then don’t engage with it. End of. To the rest of you, grow up.

  • HollowGolem

    I was unaware that the Law listed, among the fundamental rights of individuals, the right to not be offended.

    What an important and meaningless protection from being challenged in one’s comfortable, and potentially erroneous, worldview.

  • Tom G

    The worst part of this, everyone seems to be too afraid around the net to post the actual cartoon…
    Something’s a brewing in Europe that doesn’t feel right.

  • Winter Hannah-Ward

    we are one step away from having blasphemy laws again – well, laws that are actually enforced anyway!! How ridiculous is this in this day and age?!! anyone that defends the right to not be offended deserves to be offended in the most extreme ways possible.

    I for one will not let these ridiculous views limit my freedom to say that religion is nonsense and prophets are nothing more than liars and charlatans.

    de-programming cult members takes months of solid work, if not years. what a lot of work we have to do!

  • http://historyhuntersinternational.org/ History Hunters International

    You have my full support. Bravo!

  • Robert J. Williamson

    People fear Islam and rightly so because if you upset them they kill people. They don’t want their college burned to the ground. If you point out the facts about Islam and their behavior even that is seen as a reason to try to kill you.

  • cybernetichero

    Ironic because I consider Economics and “Political Science” to be as much sciences as Astrology or Cosmetology, their own pretentions aside. Since we ARE talking about self-deception.

  • David Makin

    Frankly it sounds liker some folks “in charge’ there need to move to Texas.

  • Daniel Schegh

    If causing offense, or potential offense, is the measure of unacceptable behaviour then Mr. Stall and Mr. Thornbury are guilty of these crimes. I can imagine nothing more offensive to the principles of freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of expression, or even simple critical thinking, than their behaviour. Shame on them for being oppressive.

  • iggyo

    Meaningful dialogue and debate? You obviously haven’t tried to talk sensibly with a staunchly religious person before. No matter how hard you may present your facts in such a debate, they hold on dearly to the beliefs and principles that have been passed on to them by their parents/guardians/overseers. Satire is a way to try to show them that their blind faith is flawed from a humourous viewpoint. You mention that you have no hope in the future of atheism if masters candidates can not come up with anything better than wearing t-shirts to promote their group’s views. What have YOU done lately?
    How easy is it for you to sit at your computer and type a comment on the internet, poo-pooing others for trying to make a difference? To quote you, “If you’d rather just sit with your righteous world view, write snotty comments… go for it though.” You seem to have taken your own advice. Happy trolling!

  • John K

    Get ready for a new Inquisition!

  • John K

    It’s here – the new Inquisition!

  • McJoders

    Apologies, I may have written my origninal post in haste and not represented my view as well as I should have. I never meant to present my rant as fact, I just meant to comment on the actions of others who I philosophically agree with but whose tactics I disagree with. Satire is a great way of turning a viewpoint on its head and holding up a mirror to it . My only issue was that it doesn’t need to resort to using knowingly offensive imagery and then claim innocence when offence is taken.

  • McJoders

    No one has the ‘right’ to be offended. But that, unless you live in a world that only deals with polar opposites, doesn’t give people the right to knowingly offend others (I guess I’m speaking from my commonly shared moral arsehole/naval though)

  • McJoders

    Apologies for the confusion, I never meant to criticise Owen for the use of fatuous, I only meant to repeat his tone
    .

  • iggyo

    Graciously accepted.

  • Vanadise

    Please don’t, down here in Texas we’re trying our best to get rid of them.

  • HDS1963

    To mix metaphors for a moment, Islam is becoming the sacred cow. Nobody dare offend Muslims for fear of a massive backlash. I’m a Christian, I uphold the right of people to not believe what I believe and I support these guys in their stance. This has to change. We can’t have a society where fear of offence leads to a total shutdown on free speech. I can’t believe the LSE has scored a massive own goal with this.

  • David Makin

    I apologise for gross-stereotyping ;)

  • David Makin

    According to the Koran if unbelievers state they believe Muslims are wrong it isn’t blasphemy – however to claim that a human being is the Son of God *is* blasphemy.

  • Winter Hannah-Ward

    try telling that to the islots!

  • Winter Hannah-Ward

    until everyone starts wearing “fuck your prophet” t-shirts we are doomed!

  • Josh Lord

    I think you’re right to say that the atheist society knew that their t-shirts would cause some offence, albeit to a relatively small proportion of students attending the fare. However, I also suspect that they considered this to be acceptable collateral damage in a much needed attempt to strip the sacred status from these palpably fictitious characters (and their associated religions) and weaken the pernicious taboo that currently hinders much needed criticism of religion and Islam in particular. How is such a taboo to be tackled if no one is prepared to break it, or – as in this instance – ridicule it? What you see as a juvenile attempt to cynically gain attention, I see as a perfectly reasonable and measured attempt to achieve some important objectives; I dare say stimulating interest being one of them (and what’s wrong with that?).

  • Paul_Giles

    Jesus and Mo cartoons here: http://www.jesusandmo.net/

  • Troll999

    Muslims ftw

  • ND52

    Here ya go @disqus_RTSpA2ssAC:disqus