The Daily Mail and Huffington Post have both reported on an incident that occurred at the Freshers Fair at Reading University where the university’s Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society (RAHS) labelled a pineapple with the name ‘Muhammad’.
From the Daily Mail:
“A group of atheist students were thrown out of their freshers' fair because they included a pineapple labelled 'Mohammed' on their stall.
“The Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society (RAHS) said they wanted to celebrate free speech and promote their upcoming debate 'Should we respect religion?'
“But they were ordered to remove the offending fruit by union staff who said their actions were causing 'upset and distress' to a number of Muslim students and other societies.
“RAHS refused, citing that they had labelled the pineapple after the Islamic prophet to 'encourage discussion about blasphemy, religion, and liberty'.
“A spokesman said: 'We wanted 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.'
“They claimed the union then issued them with the ultimatum: 'Either the pineapple goes or you do.'
“According to RAHS, a group of students surrounded their stall and removed the pineapple's name tag before the society was 'forced to leave the venue' accompanied by security, it was reported in the Huffington Post.
“Rupert Sutton, who blogs on Student Rights, a website which claims to 'tackle extremism on campuses' said that, “Whilst this action by the RAHS may have been provocative, they should have every right to do it.
'”Instead of closing down debate, Reading University Student Union (RUSU) should be encouraging students to interact with one another rather than pandering to the hurt feelings of the devout.'
The incident echoes somewhat an incident which took place at the University College London (UCL) this January when the University’s atheist society published a cartoon depicting the Prophets Muhammed and Jesus having a drink at a bar.
The argument for provocation and freedom of speech is an interesting and somewhat predictable one given the recent debates which have taken place around the Youtube video ‘Innocence of Muslims’ and the subsequent publication of crude cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. As Times magazine’s Paris bureau chief, Bruce Crumley argued, in an article published last year, “Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile."
The comment attributed to Sutton of Student Rights is most interesting given the organisation’s efforts to close down speech that they disapprove of. It is nothing short of hypocrisy for Student Rights to put forward arguments defending the right of ‘provocation’ and causing offence when they themselves appear to arbitrarily adopt the principle. If the insistence on the absolute right to free speech is to hold any credibility, it must be applied universally and not selectively as is often, sadly, the case.
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