The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

Charlie Hebdo cover revealed at debate on campus

In a debate over free speech on campus, the controversial front cover of the memorial edition of Charlie Hebdo, depicting the prophet Muhammad, was revealed unannounced


The special edition of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo which depicts the prophet Muhammad on the cover was put on display during a debate organized by the Free Speech and Secular Society (FSS) in the Zochonis Building on Wednesday 18th March.

Students’ Union Executive members participated in the event but were unable to stop a guest speaker from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) from showing the paper to the public. In February, the Students’ Union had forbade the public display of that particular edition of Charlie Hebdo inside the Union building.

Chris Moos, who founded the Atheists society at the LSE, brandished the newspaper with the controversial depiction of the prophet on the cover during the event last Wednesday. He then said: “This is Charlie Hebdo. This is the cover that was covered up. Let’s just think about that. What on earth is offensive in this image? I really would like to know. Can anyone give me a good answer?”

Tension built up in the main lecture room of the Zochonis Building as panelists and members of the public alike joined a debate that was running smoothly and quietly until then.

Charlotte Cook, General Secretary of the Students’ Union, said: “I am mildly frustrated by the exposure of the image. Because this Union had an understanding and this university had an understanding that we came to with our members about how we would exhibit that image to our students. And that has been disrespected in this space from an external member who was well aware and informed of those processes and those discussions.”

Chris Moos claims he was not informed of the fact that he was not welcome to display the image at the event and the FSS have confirmed that they were unaware of Moos’ intention to show the image. The Mancunion can confirm that there was also no briefing with the Students’ Union before the debate about what could or could not be done.

The debate was titled ‘Please Don’t Shoot: Is Free Speech Dead on Campus?’ and was described on its Facebook page as “A panel discussion on campus censorship.” Following opening remarks by the guest speakers, an expanded Q&A session took place, with panelists taking questions from the audience and from Twitter users.

Speaking to The Mancunion, Leonardo Carella, member of the FSS, said: “We did not put any limits to the discussion. The main topics were censorship on campus and the safe space policy, so I would assume they [the Students’ Union] knew the Charlie Hebdo controversy would have turned up.”

Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical newspaper which is known for being a secular publication featuring cartoons, reports and jokes which deal with a broad range of topics. The newspaper’s offices were the target of a terrorist attack led by Muslim extremists in January 2015 which led to the death of 12 people. Following the attack, the workers who survived put together a limited-release edition of the newspaper, which paid a tribute to those who were killed and which featured a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad on the cover stating “everything is forgiven.”

As was reported by The Mancunion in February, the Students’ Union censored the exhibition of Charlie Hebdo to students at the Refreshers’ Fair, after the Free Speech and Secular Society informed the Union that it was going to have a copy of the paper on its stand for students who wished to see this historical edition. The Union said that the image could be made available to those who asked for it, though the open presence of the publication would be banned. The occurrence at the debate last Wednesday defied the embargo.

In the audience were about thirty students, which included Conor McGurran (Campaigns and Citizenship Officer), Tessy Maritim (Diversity Officer), and Natasha Brooks (recently elected Diversity Officer for the 2015/16 academic year).

Conor McGurran was the first person to respond to Moos’ provocative remarks. He said: “You want an answer? [to “What on earth is offensive in this image?”] That event was designed as an orientation fair for people who were coming to the university largely for the first time, often to the country for the first time. Whilst you may argue that the image isn’t offensive to you, it may be to some, and allowing people who want to access it whilst arguing that if you don’t want to access you don’t have to access it—I don’t see how in any way that is containing free speech, that is allowing people to make an informed choice rather than positioning something upon someone on their first entry to the University of Manchester.”

Other members of the public also put forward their views. John Beswick, a student at the University of Manchester, said: “Suppose I’m a vegetarian whose vegetarianism is so intrinsic to them that a challenge to my vegetarianism is a challenge to myself. There were people in the middle of the room handing out free slices of peperoni pizza. To be consistent you would have to say that that should be banned.

“Apart from being the elected head of the SU, what makes you think that you are qualified enough to decide whose taking of offense is more important than someone else’s considering that all offense is subjective? You said you would take every step to be inclusive of all opinions. Yet you move from that premise to the censoring of the memorial edition of the Charlie Hebdo cartoon. However your views on the Charlie Hebdo are, you must see that it wasn’t inclusive to secularists and atheists and humanists who wanted to show solidarity with the murdered cartoonists and did not feel included.”

The event was organized in cooperation with Spiked!, an online magazine. Besides Chris Moos and Charlotte Cook, the panel also included Tom Slater (Assistant Editor of Spiked!) and Josh Woolas (NUS delegate and Chair of Manchester Labour Students). Moderating the debate was Edgar Haener, secretary of the FSS.

  • Clara

    This University seems to be a crazy place…. Seriously.
    Being a grow up means that you can manage yours “feelings” when you’re “offended”. You can’t spend your life hiding from everything that could upset you.
    Children, you need to grow up and mature a lot.

    • Not only THIS uni, but ALL universities across the UK forbid free speech unless it is part of their own agenda. Despicable radicalisation is happening in front of our eyes against the West, democracy, Israel and the Jewish community.

  • JDale

    If free speech is not dean on campus yet, its pretty clear that Charlotte Cook, her peers, and sundry religious apologists would all very much like it to be.

  • UriahOlathaire

    The fact our future leaders think like this is quite frankly, terrifying.

    • Fin

      Don’t worry, the student union and NUS don’t actually represent students opinions, whatever they say. Hence the reason why voter turn out in student elections are so low – nobody cares.
      This is just a minority of ultra radical left wing students trying to impose their world view and ideas on the rest of us – hence the censoring or attempt to censor free speech.
      They do not represent the majority of Manchester students, let me assure you.

  • PJ

    The members of this Union who are rationalising that free speech of any kind (including showing the Charlie Hebdo cover) is allowed to be censored should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves, considering they represent their university. Isn’t university supposed to be an institution where free-thought and ideas should be expressed?

  • Johnny Wong

    Ah, yes, Chris Moos, the admirer of Thilo Sarrazin, who is now masquerading as some sort of secular activist.

    • Trofim

      That’s nothing. He’s also an admirer of Tiddletap Wongdink. In my book that makes him a very good bloke.

      • Johnny Wong

        He’s probably a big fan of your mum.

  • Aleks

    Reading this article almost triggered an out-of-body experience for me. I can’t believe this is the world I’m living in. I can’t believe that freedom of speech is under such fire in a Western Democracy. I can’t shake off that weird feeling of just having read an article from a state-controlled, Pravda-like newspaper.

  • Esther

    Are you sure this wasn’t a Monty Python sketch?
    Conor McGurran and members of the Students’ Union better realise that soon they may as well stop having meetings if it is forbidden to raise anything (without sufficient notice) that is offensive to any one individual present.

  • jane

    It seems that free speech is dead at Manchester University, if their Students’ Union has banned Charlie Hebdo.

  • ferretsatdawn

    Is this Monty Python or 1984?

  • Tipsy

    ‘Diversity officer’

    What the hell is a diversity officer??
    These people don’t generalise their philosophies at all! The vegetarian beliefs argument was perfectly analogous, these offence-mongers will lose this argument, because their position is SO outrageously ridiculous, children see through it, when someone shines a verbal light on it.

  • Adam

    Conor McGurran (Campaigns and Citizenship Officer)
    How the hell is hell a citizenship officer when he won’t even defend the citizens basic right to free speech?