The imprimatur of Students’ Unions

Michael Kenning - Regular Columnist

Image credits: Peter Kelly

On the 20th March 2015, Bath University’s Model United Nations hosted a World Food Programme Diversity event. Invited were a number of performers; a cappella band rendered pop songs, a mellifluous Arab musician played on an oud, and some Chinese students demonstrated a wardrobe of traditional Chinese clothing.

The Comedy Writing, Improvisation and Performance Society were also set to perform that night. They had an upcoming show, entitled ‘The Bible According to CWIPS’, at The Bath Brew House and offered to perform some segments for charity. Among them was a sketch of a tearful Mary and a disgruntled Joseph breaking to Jesus that he was the son of God and a lost Jonah encountering a couple of similarly-swallowed landlubbers.

A similarly tame sketch, called ‘Cooking with Jesus’—literally cooking with Jesus—described how one might prepare a prophet suitable for a meal. Midway through the sketch, the chef describes the preparation of the meat:

‘The meat needs to be tender before it goes in the oven. [The chef grabs a whip.] You’ll want to give it 39 lashes. [Chef proceeds to whip Jesus.]’

‘That is very specific,’ the host remarks.

‘Yes,’ replies the chef. ‘This is probably a good time to mention that other divine prophets can be used in this recipe. Like John, Jehovah…’

After listing several prophets (and one god), the chef would have continued to say

‘Oh, and if you are feeling particularly adventurous, you can substitute in Mohammed, which is a slightly darker meat … probably.’

But this line was dropped. Muslims were in the audience, and at no point were any of them threatened physically. (It would defeat the whole point of a Diversity event if they were.) The worst response would have been an eye-roll. And yet, before CWIPS’ performance, the Activities Officer at the time instructed them to remove the ‘inappropriate’ line, in an effort to protect it from the delicate ears of sensitive Muslims.

Of course the sketch barely suffered as a result of the Mohammed line being dropped. CWIPS felt much the same way. Though that didn’t mask their disappointment with the loss of a joke—especially considering the ‘Cooking with Christ’ sketch being their favourite one.

The very mention of the Prophet Mohammed in a less than reverent light risked the imprimatur of the Students’ Union. After all, this was just how involved the Students’ Union was in the production. The Activities Officer had read through the drafts himself, to scrutinise it for any possible offences and purge them if they exist. (Anyone who understands the nature of good comedy will know how destructive this is to the art.)

The Chaplaincy and the Secretary of the University were then asked by the SU to crawl through the pages themselves and opine upon the production. On the 24th March at 3 o’clock, the Activities Officer, on behalf of the SU, informed CWIPS that the ‘Cooking with Jesus’ sketch should be pulled in its entirety—an opinion formed only after talking to the Chaplaincy, who described it as ‘too graphic’.

Overbearing SUs like Bath’s are becoming a more frequent spectacle. One more recent incident happened at Warwick University. After being invited to speak by the Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists (WASH), Maryam Namazie, an Iranian-born feminist and winner of the 2005 Secularist of the Year Award, was disinvited from Warwick University by Warwick’s Students’ Union. Following a list of absurd objections, the SU claimed ‘there a number of articles written both by the speaker and by others about the speaker that indicate that she is highly inflammatory, and could incite hatred on campus’ and decided ‘to decline authorisation for her attendance on campus.’

Worryingly, Warwick sets impossible standards for external speakers—one such criterion being that they ‘must seek to avoid insulting other faiths or groups, within a framework of positive debate and challenge’.

How, pray, can this possibly be fulfilled by a spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain? Her and her organisation’s very existence is an offence to the sensibilities of the most conservative Muslims. In fact, how can any political speaker—especially a comedian—avoid this? Politics is division by definition. And is insult not in the eye in the beholder?

Indeed, much has been said about her. Mo Ansar believes she is a purveyor of ‘lies, misinformation and hatred about Islam and Muslims’. Going against his better judgement, that he supports ‘tackling haters face-to-face and on the ideological battlefield esp. [sic] in academia’, he has not the strength of his convictions when he says Warwick was right to block Namazie. Ansar’s focus moves from individual, inalienable rights to the ‘rights’ of a ‘community’:

We now face some fundamental questions about the shape our society needs to take moving forward from this – how we balance the freedom of speech and expression, especially where it is non-violent, against the interests of the state apparatus and the need for peaceful community relations. (Huffington Post, May 2013.)

With criticism as above abound, it’s hardly surprising that the SU found some dirt on Namazie. They looked for it and they found it. Clearly they’ve read nothing of what Namazie has said and her repeated condemnations of the Far Right—Islamist and Anti-Muslim.

Freedom of speech means freedom to hear. Benjamin David, the President of WASH, explains: ‘We believe that it is important for people to have a platform to delineate the facts concerning their own experiences—in this case the experiences of radical Islam.’ WSU momentarily robbed every student—Muslim or non-Muslim—of this natural right. WSU took upon itself the role of arbiter for our ears—a role that none had asked them to fulfil, and an imposition that no person with dignity could suffer.

What is most shocking, David tells me, is that the SU has previously authorised more controversial speakers, ‘including very polemic ones like the well-known antisemite Ken O’Keefe (who was given the opportunity to talk earlier this year).’ In David’s words: ‘This is Maryam’s experience and she should be granted the opportunity to have a platform to expound her own experiences via the non-violent narrative that she pursues.’

WSU has since apologised, but at the time of writing have yet to issue one to Namazie. They have blamed the whole affair on a simple miscommunication within the SU—not on a fault of policy.

This isn’t good enough. This was an extraordinary circumstance after all; WASH managed to mount a tremendous campaign against their SU after waiting more than two weeks since they appealed. It begs the question: how many other applications have been rejected and appeals ignored, because other societies have not had the external backing WASH has? There’s no way to find out. Since John Milton’s Aeropagitica we have known the pernicious nature of censorship by bureaucracy—yet now it rears its ugly head.

Bath and Warwick are no exceptions. Spiked has detailed campus censorship across UK universities—and it is rife. Threats come from outside, however: Bath Spa University had to ask permission from its leadership before it could have a debate on Britain’s monarchy because it was on Duchy land.

SUs should step back from their assumed roles of arbiter. Ideally, speakers should only be prevented from speaking only if there is a possibility they will incite violence or murder. Our law that prosecutes ‘hate speech’ gives latitude to campus censorship. It is time for this law to end, and campus censorship to stop.

 


Image credits: Fellbriu|Flickr.

About Michael Kenning 8 Articles
Michael Kenning is an undergraduate student in Computer Science at the University of Bath. His interests range from science and religion to politics and international relations. He is a member of the British Humanist Association, Labour, Republic and English PEN. You can follow him on Twitter @mikenning or read his blog at http://mkenning.wordpress.com/.