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Is free speech really dead at Manchester? Photo: Free Speech and Secular Society UoM

Charlie Hebdo cover revealed at debate on campus

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.

Tags: Charlie Hebdo, Charlotte Cook, Connor McGurran, Free Speech, FSS, Manchester Students' Union, spiked

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