The London School of Economics (LSE), the alma mater of alumni such as former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, billionaire George Soros, and blundering economist Paul Krugman, has suffered embarrassment this month after it was revealed that students wearing satirical “Jesus and Mo” t-shirts were forced to cover up by campus security.
The university has now apologized and climbed down from its earlier positions on the matter, admitting that the wearing of the t-shirts did not amount to harassment or contravene the law or LSE policies, as was originally claimed.
In October it was reported that two students, Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadnis, were accosted by university management and security staff, and ordered to remove “offensive” t-shirts which depicted the Muslim prophet Muhammad, as well as Jesus Christ. The pair are part of the university’s Atheist, Secularist, and Humanist (ASH) Society, and the t-shirts were merchandise from a popular satirical cartoon entitled “Jesus and Mo.”
But for some students, namely Community and Welfare Officer Anneessa Mahmood, Deputy Chief Executive Jarlath O’Hara, and Anti-Racism Officer Rayhan Uddin, the “offense” caused was too great. The ASH society’s posters were literally torn down, and those wearing certain t-shirts were told to cover-up or face disciplinary action. Phandis described the entire scenario as “Kafkaesque,” and many noted the severe nature of the LSE’s enforcement.
Initially, the pair stood their ground and refused to remove the shirts. They were quickly surrounded by LSE security staff, and told they were failing to behave in an “orderly and responsible manner,” and that wearing the t-shirts could be considered “harassment.” Moos and Phandis agreed to put their coats on at this point, obscuring the t-shirts, but returned the next morning with the same apparel, albeit with the word “CENSORED” across the front. Once again, they were asked to remove the “offending” items.
At the time, Phandis wrote:
We categorically deny [wishing to cause offense], and struggle to fathom how such innocuous t-shirts, which contain neither threats, nor racist taunts, nor foul language, could support such an accusation. Forcing us to cover up a harmless likeness of the prophets amounts to demanding we obey religious law to avoid upsetting the religious. What is the freedom of expression if not the freedom of the heretic who thinks differently?
The LSE, after its own investigation into the matter, released a statement earlier this month acknowledging their censorious mistakes:
The London School of Economics and Political Science has today 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.
But the apology also sought to excuse staff behavior on the day in question, stating that, “Members of staff acted in good faith and sought to manage the competing interests of complainant students and [Moos and Phandis] in a way that they considered to be in the best interests of all parties on the days in question.”
While the London School of Economics has long-claimed that its stance towards freedom of expression is unshakeable, especially with relation to extremist speakers and even staff members, it appears that on this occasion, the university balked.
The incident is not the first time that atheist societies on campus have been discriminated against for fear of “offense” being caused. In 2012, Reading University censured students for labeling a pineapple “Mohammed,” while University College London students argued bitterly last year after the atheist society used a Jesus and Mo cartoon depicting the two religious prophets drinking alcohol together.
The London School of Economics incidents marks yet another rough year for the university, which has recently been embroiled in a scandal involving funding from deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, as well as a debacle surrounding an internally organized trip to North Korea.