LSE, Jesus and Mo, and free expression: an update

Jesus and Mo

The LSS would like to share the following email it received from Abhishek Phadnis and Chris Moos of the LSE Students Union Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society regarding the controversy surrounding their “Jesus and Mo” T-shirts:

Dear Charlie,

We would like to thank you personally and on behalf of the LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society for your kind support relating to the incidents at the LSESU Fresher’s Fair of October 3 and 4.

We are overwhelmed by the support we have received since. Our partner organisation, the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Student Societies, and through them the British Humanist Association as well as the National Secular Society, have not only publicly stood by us, but also helped us get legal advice. We are immensely grateful to David Wolfe, QC and Tamara Jaber of Matrix Chambers, as well as Dr Ronan McCrea and Professor Eric Barendt of the UCL Faculty of Laws, for their advice and support in this difficult situation.

With their help, we have written to the LSE to ask for a clarification as to how our wearing “Jesus & Mo” t-shirts could be said to have amounted to a violation of any rules, regulations or laws. As of this writing, neither LSE nor LSESU have explained to us how and what part of our t-shirts were “offensive” or “harassing”, what the contents of the complaints against us were and how they were assessed, and how our right to freedom of expression was taken into account in their assessment of the matter. We have yet to receive an apology for the intimidation and harassment of the LSE and LSESU members of staff.

We have, therefore, submitted a complaint to the Director of LSE, Craig Calhoun, under the provisions of the LSE Free Speech Code, pointing out that LSE has a legal obligation to protect freedom of expression on its premises. We hope that both LSE and LSESU will respond to our complaint by acknowledging that wearing our t-shirts did not amount to harassment; reviewing their procedures for assessing complaints of alleged harassment or offence; and acknowledging that the actions of the LSE and LSESU officials were unacceptable and interfered with our right to free expression.

Standing up to the LSE and LSESU is a daunting prospect for two students of such a small society, and your support has helped keep our spirits up.  A petition in our support, set up by LSE Student Governor Jason Wong, has received 2,500 signatures. Academics from LSE and elsewhere in the United Kingdom have come out in our support, as have concerned citizens of all faiths and none from all corners of the globe. News outlets such as the Guardian, the Independent and the Times have covered the incidents. Our friends at American Atheists, the Lawyers’ Secular Society, the Council of ex-Muslims of Britain and Student Rights have offered their support, and public intellectuals and social activists such as yourself, Maryam Namazie, Gita Sahgal, Ophelia Benson, Peter Tatchell, Anne-Marie Waters and Richard Dawkins have backed our right to freedom of expression.

We believe that freedom of expression is inextricably linked to the functioning of a democratic and diverse society as well as higher education, and we sincerely hope that by pursuing this matter, we will help protect the liberties of students not just at the LSE, but throughout the United Kingdom. After all, as George Bernard Shaw, founder of the LSE, said:

Put shortly and undramatically, the case is that a civilisation cannot progress without criticism, and must therefore, to save itself from stagnation and putrefaction, declare impunity for criticism. This means impunity not only for propositions which, however novel, seem interesting, statesmanlike and respectable, but for propositions that shock the uncritical as obscene, seditious, blasphemous, heretical and revolutionary.

Once again, thank you for your continued support. We will let you know of the response we receive from the LSE.

Kind regards,

Abhishek Phadnis & Chris Moos

LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society

Commenting, LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian said:

“Without free expression an improvement of the human condition is impossible and a degradation is inevitable.

The LSS places on record again its unequivocal support for Abhishek and Chris. No ifs, no buts, no maybes. We salute their courage.

“The LSS would also like to place on record its thanks to the impressive legal team now assisting Abhishek and Chris.

“As you can see from the above email, neither LSE nor LSESU have explained to Abhishek and Chris how and what part of their T-shirts were “offensive” or “harassing”, what the contents of the complaints against them were and how they were assessed, and how their own right to free expression was taken into account in LSE/LSESU’s assessment of the matter.

“To have one’s right to free expression restricted at all should always set alarm bells ringing at maximum volume because there is an incredibly high bar to clear before such a fundamental right can be legitimately restricted. But to have it restricted without being given precise reasoning by the authority seeking to restrict that right is disturbing in the extreme.

“As you can see, Chris and Abhishek have drawn strength from the individuals and organisations who have publicly supported them, and we hope this illustrates just how important public demonstrations of support are at times like this. Please don’t assume others will provide that support. It’s certainly a case of the more the merrier.

“The LSE/LSESU seems intent on playing a pointlessly high stakes game here; a game which seemed in theory to have been more or less settled in the United Kingdom some time ago: the right to free expression in the context of religion. Even if the LSE/LSESU “wins”, everyone will be a loser – apart from those who seek through intimidation to restrict free expression and open enquiry.

“The LSE/LSESU is firmly on the naughty step. It should sit in quiet contemplation in the corner of the room and think carefully about what it has done. What it has done is not big, it is not funny, and it is not clever. While on the naughty step the LSE/LSESU should also re-read, and re-re-read, the inspiring and timeless words of the LSE’s founder George Bernard Shaw, assuming of course it has read those words previously at all.

“It is clear George Bernard Shaw placed a strong emphasis on free expression, and how ironic it is that he specifically referred to blasphemy. The LSE/LSESU seems determined to discard his wise advice as though it was a spam email on sexual dysfunction, and instead it seems intent on gorging unceremoniously on its own tail. An undignified, belch-ridden bout of indigestion and regurgitation hopefully awaits.

“What a shameful way for LSE/LSESU to honour the legacy of their founder, what a disgraceful way to treat two of their students, and what a cowardly, recklessly decadent disregard to display for free expression – in a seat of learning of all places.”

You can see the public statement from Chris and Abhishek here.

You can read Abhishek’s excellent blog post about the original incident here.

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