London School of Economics Apologizes for Censoring Atheists Who Wore ‘Jesus & Mo’ Shirts December 19, 2013

London School of Economics Apologizes for Censoring Atheists Who Wore ‘Jesus & Mo’ Shirts

Two months ago, Abhishek Phadnis and Chris Moos, students at the London School of Economics, were manning a table for their school’s atheist group at an organizational fair when they were told they had to remove their “offensive” shirts that featured the title characters from the webcomic Jesus & Mo:

When we asked what rules or regulations we were in breach of, they told us that they did not need to give reasons for removing students, and we would be informed at a later point in time. As we refused to take off our t-shirts or leave without appropriate explanation, we were told that LSE security would be called to physically remove us from the building. We came to the Freshers’ Fair to promote our society to new students. Our ability to do that was heavily curtailed by the actions of the LSESU staff. We especially felt that the abrasive behaviour of the LSESU staff was not aimed at protecting other students from harm, but rather an attempt [to] humiliate us in front of dozens of students.

The next day, in protest, they wore the shirts again, this time with tape over the images of the characters with the phrases “This has been censored” and “Nothing to see here” written on it. That didn’t go over well, either:

Abhishek Phadnis (left) and Chris Moos (center) wearing their ‘censored’ shirts

Shortly after midday, the LSESU Deputy Chief Executive Jarlath O’Hara approached us, demanding we take the t-shirts off as per his instructions of the previous day. We explained to him that we had covered the “offensive” parts this time, and offered to use our tape to cover any other areas deemed “offensive”. He refused to hear us out, insisting that if we did not take off the whole t-shirt, LSE Security would be called to bodily remove us from the premises. He left, warning us that he was summoning LSE Security to eject us.

Keep in mind these were not offensive images of Jesus or Muhammad. It was criticism of religious ideas, not Muslims. Yet, the students were told to change their clothes because they were “offending” people. It was ridiculous, spurring many students to wear Jesus & Mo shirts of their own on campus in protest.

Today, the LSE issued an apology to Moos and Phadnis. And it’s about damn time:

… 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.

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.

Trending Central has reactions from local atheist leaders:

Rory Fenton, President of AHS commented, ‘This statement is very welcome and we hope it will serve as a deterrent to any further attempts at chilling free speech or expression by institutions. We are very concerned by the tendency to censor our affiliated societies for fear of offending religious sensitivities and see this as an important step in recognising our members’ right to free speech: the same rights that also ensure freedom of expression for religious students. Universities must recognise that their duty is to their students, not their students’ beliefs.

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the BHA commented, ‘This is a triumph of reason of the sort that should prevail at our universities. Current equality law intended to provide hospitable environments for all should not be used to curtail free expression in an academic environment, even if that expression is used to may seem peculiar or even abhorrent to others. Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are fundamental aspects of an open, democratic and just society.

Bravo, Chris and Abhishek. It’s not often that a prestigious institution learns a valuable lesson from its students.

(Thanks to Raheem for the link)


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  • LesterBallard

    What about the reactions of the complainants?

  • ScottG

    Were there actually complaints, or was the original censorship a “proactive” step on the part of staff? I’m reading the original article, and there’s no mention of that; it all just suddenly starts with staff dismantling their stuff.

  • LesterBallard

    “Members of staff acted in good faith and sought to manage the competing interests of complainant students”

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Members of staff acted in good faith…

    There’s the problem right there. Faith is not good.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    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.

    O NOEZ, it’s highly personalised! But asking someone to take off their shirt isn’t.

  • WallofSleep

    That’s how you know this was about humiliation, not regulation.

  • anon atheist

    I will only put any stock into this appology if next freshers fair the staff actually reacts differently. Hope Hemant you keep an eye on the story.

  • michaelfugate

    So next time I am at LSE and I find someone’s clothing offensive, all I need do is to complain to the administration and they will demand that the offensive clothing be removed? Must be large numbers of semi-naked people walking around the LSE campus.

  • Rain

    I still haven’t found any funny tweets from the religious pages category on twitter. Come to think of it I don’t remember any Dawkins funny tweets either. Morgan Fairchild is even worse. All activism and and politics. *yawn*

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Who are never named, nor numbered.

  • Nice wordplay, but… let’s not confuse the meanings of “faith”. We already take enough crap over that as it is.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    “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.”

    BS. The actions were not in any sense of the idea a balance between the people complaining and those wearing t-shirts. They acted without any thought.

  • Dekker Van Wyk

    Why are Ms. O’Hara and her cronies not being disciplined for their gross and blatant abuse of power?

  • mobathome

    The statement from Professor Craig Calhoun is clearly not an apology of any sort.

  • compl3x

    England’s learning institutions seem to have no problem inviting “controversial speakers” (i.e. religious bigots with extreme views) and allowing gender segregation, but wearing an “offensive” t-shirt is unacceptable.

    Derp.

  • Whitney Currie

    Okay, hang on a moment here.

    I’m glad they apologized, even if it’s a bit open as to how much they really meant it. It’s a step in the right direction, for the most part, and there’s some recognition of the problem.

    What worries me about this is that to some extent, it seems as though there’s a “get what we want now, and apologize later” tactic in effect. As another poster noted, the students who complained are mentioned well after the fact and never by name; though the atheist group and individuals are. Secondly, this Deputy Chief Executive Jarlath O’Hara doesn’t seem to have even had a good talking-to, never mind actual discipline, and there is no indication of an apology from that corner.

    None of this is proof of conspiracy, and I don’t think it was actually planned as any such thing. I just worry that this is the conditioned response for handling this type of issue; a do what we feel is necessary now, and halfway make up for it later. I’ll admit it’s hard to tell from here. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

  • Tor

    I had a client once who, regarding the rules of the city planning department, said, “I’d rather apologize than ask for permission.”

  • midnight rambler

    It’s an old saying, “it’s usually easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission”.

  • Tor

    There you have it.

  • Itarion

    Apologizing works best with a side of “we fixed it.”

  • Meh

    All in all I think LSE learned a valuable lesson – ask shit-stirrers to stop stirring up shit, and they will stir up 10 times as much shit on social media. So from a risk-management perspective, best to leave the shit-stirrers to their own devices.

  • rufus_t

    What’s the American expression? A day late and a dollar short?

  • Dave The Sandman
  • Jacob Beard

    It was a humanist secular society not atheist exactly, but more than likely they’re atheists/ agnostics.

  • quasibaka

    They justify such actions citing RESPECT .
    F*ck that shit . People deserve respect , not ideas or bronze age myths .

  • Little_Magpie

    We explained to him that we had covered the “offensive” parts
    this time, and offered to use our tape to cover any other areas deemed
    “offensive”. He refused to hear us out, insisting that if we did not
    take off the whole t-shirt, LSE Security would be called to bodily
    remove us from the premises.

    See, given that they’re guys, in their position I would have been, “okay,” and taken the shirt off and gone shirtless.

    (And the fact that shirtless men are, in some social contexts, okay, and shirtless women aren’t is annoying and sexist, but I say “given that they’re guys” because I don’t know what the law is in London in re: adult female toplessness.)

  • ejoty

    I told LSE a while ago that, because of the way the Union and School had behaved over this, I was cancelling my Annual Fund donations. I hope other alumni did the same.

  • The Starship Maxima

    Well, this is the problem in the world, and clearly not just America. I get not wanting to offend people, but some people want to make a big show of catering to the wounded sensibilities of a few.