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Written by Student Rights on 15 January 2012 at 2pm

UCL cartoon provokes discord on campuses

The furore that has blown up around the posting of a cartoon depicting Jesus and Mohammad enjoying a drink together by the University College London Atheist, Secularist and Humanist (ASH) Society gained further coverage yesterday with an article in the Guardian.

Here at the Student Rights office, the topic has caused a great amount of debate about the nature of free speech and the right to offend, and we have been contacted by UCL students and other commentators on the issue.

The posting of material on Facebook that could be perceived as extreme or offensive is an area which has yet to receive serious attention, often only coming to light when media interest centres on one particular incident.

In this case, for those yet to see the story, the university union suggested that it would be wise for the group to remove the cartoon as some students had complained that the found it offensive. The society refused and launched an online petition defending their freedom of expression which to date has received over 4000 signatures.

Following this, the Guardian has reported that the union have backed down, quoting an unnamed spokesman from UCL who said that “society presidents take responsibility from their own publicity” and that whilst the request to remove the cartoon was still in place “decisions regarding advertising for events remained at the discretion of individual societies”.

Some students claimed this as a victory whilst others were less sure, one stating on Facebook “Am I really alone in not seeing this as a victory?...The union hasn't retracted the demand and then flat out lies about publicity not being vetted by UCLU prior to distribution.

This in itself is an interesting thing to say, as the implication is that all publicity for events is checked by the student union before they go ahead. This seems unlikely, one question it raises is why the union would green-light the picture only to later suggest it should be removed? The key issue here though is whether the union were right to ask for the image to be removed following a complaint.

The UCL Ahmadiyya Society have said that a Muslim student contacted the ASH society and asked for the image to be removed before the union became involved, but was rebuffed on the grounds that “no one has the right not to be offended”. This stance by the ASH Society is one which defends their right to absolute freedom of speech and is an admirable one, yet there must be some limitations.

At Student Rights we are strong supporters of a student society’s right to freedom of expression, but the borders of what is acceptable must always stop before free speech becomes hate speech. Those who disseminate homophobic, misogynistic and racist views do not have the right to spread them at will, and there is no place for incitement to violence of any kind on a UK campus. This is when the union should be using its power; to ensure that truly offensive material is removed from student society Facebook pages.

In the instance of a 'Jesus and Mo' cartoon being posted though this was not the case, with the words of one member of the society perhaps the most illuminating. He stated that the cartoon “was posted for internal consumption, was thematically related to pub night, and is the sort of thing this community finds clever and amusing”.

Societies must accept that other students will disagree on what constitutes offensive material and as long as this does not involve hate speech or intentional provocation, they must respect each other’s opinions. This could even be a great place to begin dialogue on certain issues and underlines the need for societies to interact with each other more often in balanced debate events.  

Even so, in the interest of good campus relations, a point made by the Ahmadiyya Society that “to insult that which others hold close to their hearts is not a responsible use of freedom of speech” is pertinent here. Perhaps these words should be taken into account by anyone in a university society considering posting something on Facebook in the future in the hope that we might see discourse rather than discord.