Today, the Reading University Atheist, Humanist, and Secularist Society (RAHS) participated in the Freshers’ [i.e. Freshmen’s -EV] Fayre organised by Reading University Students’ Union (RUSU).
We spent several hours talking to other students and visitors, promoting the society and encouraging people to attend our forthcoming discussion on the topic “Should we respect religion?”
Among the material displayed on our stall was a pineapple. We labelled this pineapple “Mohammed”, to encourage discussion about blasphemy, religion, and liberty, as well as to celebrate the fact that we live in a country in which free speech is protected, and where it is lawful to call a pineapple by whatever name one chooses.
Towards the end of the afternoon, we were informed by a member of RUSU staff that there had been complaints about the pineapple, despite the fact that no complaints had been made at any point to anybody on the stall. Our commitment to freedom of expression meant that we refused to remove the pineapple from our stall. After a few minutes, we were told by another member of RUSU staff that “Either the pineapple goes, or you do”, whereupon they seized the pineapple and tried to leave. However, the pineapple was swiftly returned, and shortly was displayed again, with the name Mohammed changed to that of Jesus….
The RAHS believes in freedom of expression. Our intent in displaying a pineapple labelled “Mohammed” was to draw attention to cases where religion has been used to limit this and other fundamental rights, such as the imprisonment of Gillian Gibbons. We did not expect to be forced out of the Freshers’ Fayre because of a pineapple, and we are disappointed that RUSU took this action….
It’s a sad situation, I think, when a university student government is excluding student group speech from a student group event on the grounds of blasphemy. And while in some situations such speech by groups can be vulgar or juvenile, it seems to me that in this case it was an important and sensible part of the atheist group’s message: We don’t accept the legitimacy of the attempts to suppress blasphemy, the group is saying, and we insist on speaking notwithstanding others’ irrationally based demands that our speech be suppressed.