Rhys Morgan hit the headlines a few weeks ago due to his work in publicising Stanislaw Burzynski‘s fradulent alternative medicine practices. I hold him in some high regard as, at his age, I wasn’t too heavily involved in skepticism (although a friend of mine was, and was partially the reason why I later became active in the atheist movement).
Also in the news was a dispute between University College London and their atheist society, after an image from the webcomic Jesus and Mo was used to promote one of their facebook event. Obviously, this caused Muslims on campus to complain about the offensiveness of the image. It’s nothing new; Leeds Atheist Society was forced to cancel a showing and debate of the controversial film Fitna back in 2009 for the same reason.
The skeptic and atheist community is no stranger to threats to their freedom of speech: Simon Singh got sued by the British Chiropractic Association after he called their claims that chiropractic could help ill children “bogus”. In 2005, the Christian Party protested BBC screenings of Jerry Springer: The Opera, people from Jyllands-Posten to South Park Studios have been censored and attacked for daring to show images of Muhammad. This extends to actual legislation: critics of Scientology and other religions have been arrested for using “insulting” language as defined in the Public Order Act 1986, which is why Peter Tatchell (one of my favourite people) and the British Humanist Association would like that provision stripped.
This is where the two are linked: UCL’s student union asked the society to take it down, and refused on the grounds that it was an infringement of freedom of speech: of course, there is an Islamic prohibition on images of Muhammad, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t apply to non-Muslims. It’s like banning people from saying “God dammit”: taking the Lord’s name in vain, is of course, a massive sin. They publicised this dispute and got support from Richard Dawkins and all three major secular societies in the UK (the British Humanist Association, the National Secular Society, and the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist, and Secular Student Societies).
They also got solidarity from Morgan, who used the image as his profile picture for a week or so. He describes the intolerant behaviour he experienced on his blog, to the point that he was denounced as no better than Hitler and people threatened to burn his house down and assault him.
I was unaware of Rhys’s actions until I woke up this morning and found he had tweeted that he had been called into a meeting with his head of year at his sixth form college, about the Jesus and Mo cartoon. He reports being harassed at school and being ostracized for posting the cartoon. He was later called in again to be told that they were considering expelling him if he didn’t take the cartoon down.
Let that sink in for a second.
You see, in the British school system, you only really get suspended for one incident of violence if you don’t get put in the hospital, like, for example, getting into a punching fight. But if you post one cartoon that some people take offence at, you run the risk of getting expelled. Yes, his school promised to take care of the threats too, but it’s fucking ridiculous. Consider these two quotes from Rhys’s twitter feed.
So yeah, apparently, is something is offensive to one person, a perfectly acceptable response is to beat the poster/creator up.
Basically what they’re aug is I’ve caused so much offended I don’t have the right to freedom of speech anymore.
If we abridge free speech because it might offend someone, then it becomes meaningless. We wouldn’t be able to criticise Islam or Christianity over verses of their holy books. We wouldn’t be able to bust the claims of alternative medicine peddlers. We wouldn’t have a healthy democracy, basically. Freedom of speech is (near) absolute, and it’s absolutely unconscionable to start to abridge it.