Written by Student Rights on 20 December 2013 at 11am

LSE apologises in 'blasphemous' t-shirt row

Following reports in October that students from the London School of Economics Atheist, Secularist and Humanist (ASH) Society had been threatened with expulsion from the Freshers' Fair over “offensive” t-shirts, the LSE has now apologised.

In a statement released yesterday, the LSE announced that it had: apologised to two students from the LSE Students’ Union Atheist Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH) who wore t-shirts depicting Mohammed and Jesus at the SU Freshers’ Fair on 3 October 2013 and who were asked to cover their t-shirts or face removal from the Fair.

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”.

It is encouraging to see the university responding to the concerns of those who had been outraged by the treatment of the society.

However, a statement from Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadnis of the LSE ASH Society, which reveals some of the details found in the letter received from Professor Calhoun, says:

Even as we welcome Professor Calhoun’s apology, we are disappointed that it took the threat of legal action to elicit an acknowledgement of our grievances, and that no apology has been forthcoming from the LSESU, whose grave misconduct began this chain of harassment. We also believe that several other lingering concerns must be put on record”.

These include the fact that there has been an “admission that there was no “audit trail of the number and substance of complaints received”.

The statement from LSE ASH says that they:

 “...believe that such flippancy does not behove the LSE’s commitment to freedom of expression, and hope that the LSE will reform its procedures to better reflect this commitment.

In light of the LSE’s inability to produce any evidence of complaints, we continue to believe that there were, in fact, none, and to suspect that our real crime was to offend the politics of the officials concerned, not the sensibilities of our fellow students”.

They have also pointed out that they are:

 “...disappointed that Professor Calhoun has failed to apologise for, or even acknowledge, our harassment at the hands of LSE Security and LSESU officers.

We disagree with Professor Calhoun’s contention that they acted ‘in good faith’ in dealing with a ‘difficult situation’, and aver that the decisions in question were uncomplicated and taken unhurriedly, over two days.

We would like to know of the punitive action taken against the LSE and LSESU staff concerned, particularly against the named senior officials of the School administration, who are guilty of more than an ordinary miscalculation”.

Perhaps most concerning though is the part of the statement which quotes Professor Calhoun’s letter as saying that “he doubts that the behaviour of the LSESU officers was “a complete shock to you, particularly in light of the controversial nature of these images”.

The LSE ASH Society has quite rightly declared that they “reject this attempt to excuse the behaviour of the LSESU officers by apportioning blame to us”, and it is deeply disappointing to see.

As we have said before, students do not have the right to impose their religious sensibilities on others, and must accept that they may be offended by those who do not share their convictions.

To absolve the LSE Student Union of blame in this way instead implies students must not be surprised if they are censured for offending those sensibilities, even if this offence is only perceived by Union officials.

This is no way for a university to maintain its duty to protect freedom of expression on campus, and it is disappointing to see such a suggestion.