1. Skip to content

National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

College Principals Should Stand Up For Free Speech Instead Of Supporting The Censors

Staff and students at Clare College should make a stand for free speech instead of backing those who would destroy it, says the National Secular Society (NSS).

Reacting to news that a student who published a satirical issue of the student magazine that poked fun at religion is to be disciplined, Terry Sanderson, President of the NSS said: “We are shocked that the staff and even the students union at this supposedly liberal college have joined the attack on this student because he had the temerity to poke fun at religion. Free expression is such a precious commodity and is under such ferocious attack at present from religious interests that it is disgraceful that no-one is standing up for this young man’s right to be rude about religion – even about Islam.”

Mr Sanderson has written to the master of Clare College, Professor Tony Badger and to the Senior Tutor, Patricia Fara as well as the president of the Students Union, Calum Davey, as follows:

“We write after seeing reports in the local Cambridge press indicating that a contributor to your student magazine Clareification faces disciplinary action for having printed items that some people thought were “offensive” or “inflammatory”.

“If these reports are true, we wish to register our profound disquiet that a supposedly liberal college has reacted in this way. The reaction risks undermining one of the most precious and important rights that we have in this country: freedom of expression.

“Satire aimed at religion is no different to satire aimed at any other ideas and should not be punished or restrained. The freedom to poke fun at those who take themselves too seriously is a time-honoured tradition in this country. Regrettably, it is rapidly being eroded by cases like this. We urge you to think again and stand four-square behind the satirists, instead of disciplining them.

We would like to remind all concerned that satirising religion – even if that religion is Islam – is not racism, as this episode has been dubbed. Religion and race have very different characteristics. We would have heartily joined the condemnation if the satire had been racially motivated, but according to the reports we have read, the issue of Clareification in question was devoted to religious satire.

“We would like to draw your attention to a case that is pending in France at the moment, in which a satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, has been brought to court by an Islamic organisation for re-publishing the Danish cartoons that are at the centre of so much controversy. In the French case, academics, artists and politicians of all hues have rushed to the defence of the magazine. Letters of support and statements defending free speech have been issued by some of the most influential people in the country – including Mr Sarkozy, who is potentially the next President of France.

“Your own reaction – as reported – does not bear comparison with the principled French reactions. It sides with the oppressors and censors who are doing so much to retard open debate in academe and elsewhere.

“We call on you to support the publishers of the magazine and to tell the would-be censors that their protests have been heard but that they will not prevail. Without the freedom to debate, discuss and, yes, mock, ideas and ideologies, there can be no informed political discourse. Satire is an indispensable tool in the operating of a truly free society.”


Published Mon, 12 Feb 2007