UCLU, Rhys Morgan, Religion, Offence and Free Speech
Does you think this image is offensive?
Maybe it is to some people. Would you expect to receive complaints if it appeared on a poster? Possibly. Would you expect to be told by authorities to remove the poster? Sadly, it can’t be ruled out. Would you expect to be accused of racism and threatened with violence?
I ask, of course, because there was a complaint to the UCL Union about an Atheist Society poster because someone found this image offensive, and because the Union ordered the society to remove the image. And that was bad enough. But then Rhys Morgan posted the image on his Facebook page to show solidarity and it started all over again. After a relatively polite request to remove the image received a negative response, the abuse started, in a way that anyone familiar with the Jessica Ahlquist case will recognise. It seems that serious and threatening abuse extended to school today, where Rhys was apparently told by the school authorities to take the image down, or face suspension or even expulsion. Yes, you read that right – the school decided to step in, and rather than deal with the bullies who were threatening Rhys, decided that he doesn’t have the right to make this relatively mild point in favour of freedom of speech, not even outside school. WTF?
The argument that seems to be being used in both cases is that it’s not free speech if it’s causing offence. You can say what you like, but not if it offends anyone. Since when has that been an argument? The whole point about free speech – real, honest, open free speech – is that sometimes it will upset people, or challenge their deeply-held beliefs and preconceptions. That’s a good thing! That’s how arguments and thoughts get tested, it’s how we learn, it’s how society develops. When would we ever realise that we’d made a mistake if we’re insulated from such challenges? Can you imagine if every medical advance in history had been silenced because it offended people who firmly believed in the four humours?
I’m naturally quite a woolly, wishy-washy type, who tends to think that while it’s ridiculous to take offence at such trivial things, there’s no need to go out of your way to be deliberately offensive, because that makes you as much of a jerk as the person who gets so easily offended. I suspect that if I’d been in Rhys’s place, even if I’d posted the image in the first place, I’d have taken it down when it was politely requested in the first place. But when that politeness turns so quickly into not just fury, but vicious threats and accusations, I begin to wonder if I’ve been taken in by the friendly approach, not noticing the iron fist within the velvet glove. If this is the consequence of making a point and taking a stand, then let’s all take that stand together, because free speech is genuinely threatened.
This whole situation is screwed up – Rhys is an outstanding young blogger whose intelligence and enthusiasm would be a credit to any school. When the school ends up telling him he can’t say things in case he upsets people, are they saying he shouldn’t be campaigning against the Burzynski Clinic and the assorted other woo-ful non-treatments he’s covered, because people deeply believe they work, or is this some special case for certain officially-recognised beliefs? I think I know the answer, but it thoroughly depresses me. Please offer Rhys your full support.
I’ll see you on the barricades.