Free speech on campus

Since 2012 we have been working with our student section, the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS), and its member societies to defend freedom of speech on university campuses. A series of incidents involving AHS member societies being unreasonably censored by their universities have occurred. In each case we have worked carefully with the AHS and its student society, often with support from lawyers, to ensure that free speech has been upheld.

In depth

Recent years have seen a series of incidents where universities or student unions have attempted to restrict the free speech of member societies of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS), the student section of the BHA. After BHA publicity and sometimes support from our lawyers these attempts have invariably resulted in a reversal of the restriction concerned. This reflects the strong legal protections of freedom of speech at universities.

For example, in January 2012 UCL Union requested UCL Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society remove a cartoon from the ‘Jesus and Mo’ webcomic from its Facebook group. But after protests from us and the AHS, the request was withdrawn. Later that same week, a talk at Queen Mary University hosted by its Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society was abandoned due to death threats made at the talk itself.

The following week LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society was also instructed by its Students’ Union to remove Jesus and Mo cartoons from its Facebook page. When the society refused, it was asked to remove ‘Union’ from its name. This led to ongoing discussions with the BHA, AHS, and lawyers which ultimately resulted in the University overruling the SU on both counts.

In September 2012 Reading University Atheist, Humanist, and Secularist Society were thrown out of their University’s freshers’ fair for putting a post-it note on a pineapple with the label ‘Mohammed’. In October 2013 LSESU ASH faced a similar incident as members were threatened with removal over wearing Jesus and Mo t-shirts at their freshers’ fair. LSE subsequently apologised after discussions involving the AHS, BHA, and lawyers sourced by the BHA.

In February 2014 London South Bank University’s Union banned a poster produced by the Atheist Society depicting the flying spaghetti monster , deeming it to be offensive. After the BHA generated publicity for the case the decision was reversed.

In September 2015, Warwick University, student union banned Warwick Atheists, Secularists, and Humanists from hosting the anti-Islamist activist Maryam Namazie from speaking.  However, once again, after protests from the BHA and AHS, the decision was quickly reversed.

What we’re doing

We have worked reactively to deal with each of the above cases, supporting the AHS and our affiliated student societies, and in almost all incidents have eventually achieved a resolution in the society’s favour. We will continue to do so if and when similar incidents arise.

We have also worked with groups like the National Union of Students and Equality Challenge Unit in order to try to find a more permanent way of preventing these kinds of increasingly common issues from repeating themselves. We believe national guidance is needed on free speech and offence on campus, making clear to Universities and SUs where the acceptable limits lie. Until such guidance is produced we are concerned that similar issues will continue to repeat themselves.

Get involved

You can support the BHA by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to the BHA.