The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

Charlie Hebdo cartoon banned from Refreshers’ Fair

The University of Manchester Students’ Union has been accused of unfair censorship for disallowing the Charlie Hebdo front cover on Students’ Union premises during the Refreshers’ fair

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Outrage has been sparked on Twitter this week in light of a tweet from the University of Manchester Free Speech and Secular Society (FSS) accusing the University of Manchester Students’ Union of unjust censorship in preventing them from displaying a copy of the Charlie Hebdo magazine at the Refreshers’ Fair last Tuesday.

The FSS is dedicated to protecting the principles of freedom of expression and secularism, and endorses a rational and non-religious legal system. Its main tenets include the right to challenge sacred beliefs no matter from which faith it derives.

The Society obtained one of 10 copies of the infamous Charlie Hebdo magazine displaying the image of the Prophet Muhammad holding the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ sign on its front page, which was published following the Paris shootings at their offices on the 7th January.

They intended to include the magazine, along with other editions of the magazine picturing the Holy Trinity cover, as part of their Refreshers’ stall last Tuesday.

In what the FSS describes as an act of good faith, they contacted the Students’ Union Executive team advising that they were intending to have the magazine as a small feature of their display. However on the evening prior to the Refreshers’ Fair, they received an e-mail from a representative of the Students’ Union informing them that they would not be able to feature the front cover at their stall.

The reasons for the censorship of the Charlie Hebdo front cover were laid out in an e-mail from the Students’ Union General Secretary, Charlie Cook, and chiefly reflected the view that they found it “unsuitable for the event,” and that they “could see no benefit in allowing the presence of the magazine.

“There was genuine concern its presence may cause distress and insult to others,” she added.

A tweet posted by the FSS on the 27th of January contained the image of the Charlie Hebdo cover which they instead included on the stall, with the face of the Prophet Muhammad covered by a black square and the words “Censored by Students’ Union.”

Further to this, the tweet was picked up by writer and humanist Richard Dawkins, who called the Students’ Union “priggishly officious offence junkies,” and asked what they thought a university was for.

This tweet has since received 306 retweets and has caused a frenzy on Twitter.

Since then the FSS has issued a statement to The Mancunion stating that they “don’t necessarily endorse the views put forward by the magazine, but we do think it is essential that every student be allowed to decide for themselves where to stand on this issue.

“After the tragic attack on Charlie Hebdo, a copy of their survivors’ issue is naturally relevant to free speech and is of interest to many, given the difficulty of obtaining a copy in the UK. We had decided to have a copy at the stand, among other things, for students who were interested.

“We were planning to focus on topics such as imprisoned journalists around the world. The SU’s prohibition of the Charlie Hebdo magazine forced us to focus on this issue.

“If we now acquiesce to the de facto blasphemy laws the terrorists want to force on us, we are sending one message: violence works. We want to make clear, vocally and firmly, that censorship via violence does not work, or, at least, it shouldn’t.

“It is a commendable goal to make people feel comfortable at university, but censorship itself is offensive. It is offensive to people who wish to commemorate the lives of the twelve people killed in Paris, [and amongst others] to those Muslims who do not condone violence and feel infantilised and patronised by the pre-emptive censorship.

“Discussion around the issue of freedom of speech and the limits of offence must necessarily include the object of the controversy. Without it, debate is stifled and discussion limited—the antithesis of what a university should promote.

“The fact that we are being censored shows just how important it is to counter those who want to treat students as children. We believe students can make up their own mind and decide for themselves where to stand on any issue.

“We value our right to freedom of speech and believe it is worth protecting. Current laws criminalise incitement to violence and slander. These are limits on free speech to prevent harm—and that is commendable.

“Ideas should not be protected from criticism. Bad ideas should be challenged and replaced by better ideas through dialogue. We therefore urge the Union to review their policy.”

In a statement to The Mancunion, Charlie Cook said: “The Students’ Union is a representative organisation for a diverse student body of nearly 40000 people. It is vital we try and balance the needs and wishes of our members considering the natural conflicts that arise, and sometimes this can be controversial.

“After being made aware of the potential presence of the images, we wanted to work closely with all groups involved to ensure they were comfortable with the final outcome. The Refreshers’ Fair is a key point in the year to welcome new students  as part of the January intake, and many of these students come from countries all around the world.

“On balance, we took the call that the open presence of the magazine was not in the interests of the event or our members, however the image could be made available to those who asked to see it.

“Our primary objective was to ensure this event was as welcoming and accessible as possible and that is always at the forefront of our work.”