Comment: The inside story of how our student union censored atheist posters

Last week, London Southbank University student union apologised for censored the Atheist Society's posters. Here, society president Cloe Ansari tell us her side of the story.

By Cloe Ansari

The late Christopher Hitchens once said:

"Isn't it a famous old story that the man who has to read all the pornography in order to decide what's fit to be passed and what's fit not to be, is the man most likely to be debauched?"

This is exactly the right anecdote for censorship within our universities. Not only do the establishments try and decide what is offensive but, in our case, even fellow students take it upon themselves to deface and tear up our atheist posters. 

A re-fresher's fayre (or fair?) is an opportunity for societies to gain more attention and also new members. For a newly-founded secular society, the stall we were appointed was essential for our cause. On the day prior to the Spaghetti Monster incident, it took over an hour to set up the poster board, sticking each individual picture up in the hope of attracting new keen atheists.

When returning to the stall the following day it seemed that our stall had indeed attracted attention, but clearly the unwanted kind. Whilst examining the poster board there was a glaring rectangular gap where the Spaghetti Monster had once proudly flew. Not only was it removed from our board, but also from other places in the Student's Union.

Two of the Student Experience union staff said that I would be able to reprint it. But when I was about to, I was told to stop.

Hearing that the Flying Spaghetti Monster was reported as "offensive" was beyond laughable. Varying reasons were given at that point.

Firstly I was told it was offensive because it had a "naked man". Even after offering to cover Adam's genitals there was no resolution. Not only did these officials feel the need to be offended on behalf of others, but also that they had a right to censor art.

The second reason was because it involved a "religious painting". The irony is that the "naked man" was the original part of Michelangelo's drawing. Contradictions aren't anything new to the religious, but in this case it seemed to be a misunderstanding about freedom of speech.

Another union staff member informed us that we had to be "considerate". When I tried to argue the subjectivity of offence he would not listen to my side.

These people thought they had the right to take down our posters without any discussion. What does this say about censorship at universities? Would they have removed a religious poster that I, as a non-believer, was offended by? Of course not. This is exactly the reason why, as an atheist society, we have struggled to be fully established and be able to express ourselves from the start.

The following day we returned to see that our stall had been taken by the LGBTQ society, who we are supporters of. The issue here is that even though, as the union has stated, there were other stalls who were moved, ours was the only society who had their posters taken down from the board.

Universities are assumed to be places of free-thought and freedom of expression, yet time and time again we are facing the issue of censorship on behalf of religion.

There were no Italians complaining because of the pasta referencing. Religion remains a subject that is either questioned at our own risk or not touched on at all.

In our resolution meeting, the student union made it clear that they do allow us, as atheists, the same rights as other religious societies. Is this only because they have been faced with too many tough questions? In the future, we will have to find this out.

As the university have acknowledged, there was a miscommunication about policies, but we have to ask, who has the right to choose what could offend others? In places of education this will always be an issue.

As promoters of free-thought we will always fully support the right to display pink unicorns, red wine, or spaghetti and meatballs with eyes, because who has the right to tell us not to?

Cloe Ansari is president of the South Bank Atheist Society

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