Alex Gabriel

Queer left politics, pop culture and skepticism.

The atheists of UCL have won. But there’s a catch.

UCL’s atheist, secularist and humanist society, who’ve been all over the internet in the past few days, have just put out an announcement:

We can now tell you that the University College London Union has recognized that mistakes were made and that the initial correspondence with our society was flawed. The Union is to review its stance on such matters and has said that this will not happen again. They can no longer call on us to withdraw the image. We welcome these developments, which set an important precedent for other universities.

Wow. Just wow.

My last post here mentioned what atheists on British campuses have faced before who offended the religious: humiliation. Condemnation. Extra costs. Vandalism. Fears of violence. Death threats. (I’ve had some of the latter myself in the last few days. More on that story later.)

In some cases, this happened because their student unions weren’t paying attention. In some cases, it happened at the unions’ behest. Well, something tells me it won’t happen like that again at any near point, because UCL’s atheists put up a fight – and won.

A bit of advice, just from a personal standpoint: if you’re a student union at a British university, and you’re thinking of trying to stop atheists being offensive… don’t. Just, seriously, don’t.

Unfortunately, there’s a caveat to the good news.

Unfortunately, the Union has considered the possibility that posting the image might have constituted an act of bullying, prejudice, harassment or discrimination. … As such, the society may be risking a disciplinary hearing which could lead to the forced resignation of committee members, or disaffiliation from the Union.

Genuinely, UCL Union… of all the outraged moments you’ve gifted us this week, this one here really takes the furious biscuit.

It does not constitute bullying or harrassment of Muslims to post an atheist webcomic once, on one page, to members of an atheist Facebook group. It isn’t bullying or harrassment, either, when dozens of people (who weren’t acting on behalf of the society which first posted it) reproduce that image all over the internet and Muslims are offended – unless you can show that offending Muslims, rather than showing solidarity or flagging up censorship, was the explicit aim.

Most certainly of all, it’s not bullying or harrassment to mount a media offensive – no pun intended – against a student union that thinks it gets to stop any of this happening. Good for UCLU that they’ve come to their senses and backed down, but I wonder: would they have done that without thousands of people, on at least four continents, watching them?

If they wanted to come out of this seeming reasoned and honourable, they’ve ever so slightly failed. Disciplinary action against UCL’s atheists, right now, would be a shameful course to take. And the union must be told, loudly and clearly from across the planet, that considering taking it is not okay.

So now I’m going to ask you to link to this page, and spread the word.

If you’re one of the many thousands who signed or shared the society’s petition, please let people know what’s happened now. If you’re one of the media bodies who’ve covered this, please update your story. If you’re a fellow blogger or you’re on Twitter, fill your followers in. We cannot – cannot – let students be punished for fighting their godless corner successfully, and the more people watching UCLU’s next move, the better their chances.

Let’s be clear: this is a victory already. But it shouldn’t, and doesn’t, have to come at a cost.

@AlexGabriel

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