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Monday, December 20, 2004

Censoring the censors

Simon Titley makes a very valid point about Saturday night's violent protest by a group of Sikhs complaining about a play at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. His plea for tolerance and freedom of expression is echoed by Liberal Democrat MP, Dr. Evan Harris, today.

The other side of religious freedom of course is freedom of speech. If people have the right to worship without persecution or restriction, as they should do, then they must accept that other people have an equal right to comment on their beliefs and even cause offence if that is their wish. Those offended have the right of peaceful protest but they do not have the right of censorship or to take unlawful and violent action. As Simon says, that is what living in a democracy is all about.

The lead item in today's Western Mail underlined this point for me and raised further issues about the appropriate response to criticism. It seems that the newspaper of St. Andrew's University, "The Saint", has been temporarily shut down. The president of the university Student's Association has told editorial staff they are banned from their office. It is understood they will not be allowed to return until they have completed "diversity awareness training" at the university's human resources department. Their sin was to make anti-Welsh comments in the newspaper.

"The comments were made after two anti-blasphemy campaigners travelled from Wales to St Andrews to protest against a production of Corpus Christi, a play which depicts Jesus Christ as a homosexual and the son of an alcoholic.

Jo Kerr, the editor of The Saint, wrote in her column, "At first it all sounded like something from a Monty Python sketch, participants in a comedy portraying Jesus as a gay son of an alcoholic are attacked by a not so merry band of fundamentalist Christians from Wales.

"It's almost beyond belief (apart from the fact that I have secretly suspected the Welsh of evil doings ever since they spawned the cater-wauling Charlotte Church)."

She speculated if the same scenario had been portrayed on erstwhile soap opera Brookside, "It would have pulled audiences of over 10 million and had grannies writing in from all over Wales with their blue rinses in a twist".

......"Failing that slim possibility I could always join the Welsh Christians on their quest for the Holy Grail - complete with the Manic Street Preachers and their lucky leeks of course."

The Western Mail report continues:

In a statement, Student's Association president Simon Atkins said, "The Saint's last two issues have included a number of offensive comments as well as misleading statements concerning, amongst other groups, the University's [lesbian, gay and bisexual] students, dyslexics and the Welsh, which resulted in a number of complaints having been received [by the Students' Services Committee]."

Magazine staff will be allowed to return to their office once they have undergone diversity awareness training, overhauled their constitution and ensured that a single member of staff takes responsibility for what is published. They must also sign up to the association's equal opportunities regulations and will be expected to send a copy of each edition to the university press office for checking.

Now, I am not going to defend the anti-Welsh stereotypes printed in this newspaper nor do I sign up to any other comments they may have printed previously, but given that the intent here was not to incite hatred but to entertain and provoke discussion, I do defend their right to print it. It seems to me that the anti-Welsh stereotypes they used were more witty and original than those usually bandied about and fall far short of the racism that one of the demonstrators accused them of.

The action of the authorities in closing down this paper is over-the-top and unnecessary. They are censoring free speech in the name of political correctness and what is worse they are suppressing good quality and humorous writing. The requirement that each edition of the newspaper must be checked in advance by the university press office is an intolerable act of oppression. It is tantamount to requiring that each edition of The Spectator must be cleared by the Lord Mayor of Liverpool or that the South Wales Evening Post should be checked by the Leader of Swansea Council before publication.

If tolerance and freedom of expression are the cornerstones of our democracy then so too is a sense of humour and the ability to laugh off criticism. If people did not take themselves so seriously then perhaps we would all live in a much better world.

This is absolute nonsense, this was not racist, nor is it worth dragging some students over the diversity coals for. If anyone took offence at these childish musings, they have far too much time and anger on their hands. In a world where children starve and two thirds of the worlds population go without clean drinking water, people are wasting their time creating an 'issue' over an amateur newsletter article.
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