Rhys Morgan, and an attack on free speech

Rhys Mor­gan hit the head­lines a few weeks ago due to his work in pub­li­cis­ing Stanis­law Burzyn­ski’s frad­u­lent alter­na­tive med­i­cine prac­tices. I hold him in some high regard as, at his age, I wasn’t too heav­ily involved in skep­ti­cism (although a friend of mine was, and was par­tially the rea­son why I later became active in the athe­ist movement).

Also in the news was a dis­pute between Uni­ver­sity Col­lege Lon­don and their athe­ist soci­ety, after an image from the web­comic Jesus and Mo was used to pro­mote one of their face­book event. Obvi­ously, this caused Mus­lims on cam­pus to com­plain about the offen­sive­ness of the image. It’s noth­ing new; Leeds Athe­ist Soci­ety was forced to can­cel a show­ing and debate of the con­tro­ver­sial film Fitna back in 2009 for the same reason.

The skep­tic and athe­ist com­mu­nity is no stranger to threats to their free­dom of speech: Simon Singh got sued by the British Chi­ro­prac­tic Asso­ci­a­tion after he called their claims that chi­ro­prac­tic could help ill chil­dren “bogus”. In 2005, the Chris­t­ian Party protested BBC screen­ings of Jerry Springer: The Opera, peo­ple from Jyllands-Posten to South Park Stu­dios have been cen­sored and attacked for dar­ing to show images of Muham­mad. This extends to actual leg­is­la­tion: crit­ics of Sci­en­tol­ogy and other reli­gions have been arrested for using “insult­ing” lan­guage as defined in the Pub­lic Order Act 1986, which is why Peter Tatchell (one of my favourite peo­ple) and the British Human­ist Asso­ci­a­tion would like that pro­vi­sion stripped.

This is where the two are linked: UCL’s stu­dent union asked the soci­ety to take it down, and refused on the grounds that it was an infringe­ment of free­dom of speech: of course, there is an Islamic pro­hi­bi­tion on images of Muham­mad, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t apply to non-Muslims. It’s like ban­ning peo­ple from say­ing “God dammit”: tak­ing the Lord’s name in vain, is of course, a mas­sive sin. They pub­li­cised this dis­pute and got sup­port from Richard Dawkins and all three major sec­u­lar soci­eties in the UK (the British Human­ist Asso­ci­a­tion, the National Sec­u­lar Soci­ety, and the National Fed­er­a­tion of Athe­ist, Human­ist, and Sec­u­lar Stu­dent Societies).

They also got sol­i­dar­ity from Mor­gan, who used the image as his pro­file pic­ture for a week or so. He describes the intol­er­ant behav­iour he expe­ri­enced on his blog, to the point that he was denounced as no bet­ter than Hitler and peo­ple threat­ened to burn his house down and assault him.

I was unaware of Rhys’s actions until I woke up this morn­ing and found he had tweeted that he had been called into a meet­ing with his head of year at his sixth form col­lege, about the Jesus and Mo car­toon. He reports being harassed at school and being ostra­cized for post­ing the car­toon. He was later called in again to be told that they were con­sid­er­ing expelling him if he didn’t take the car­toon down.

Let that sink in for a second.

You see, in the British school sys­tem, you only really get sus­pended for one inci­dent of vio­lence if you don’t get put in the hos­pi­tal, like, for exam­ple, get­ting into a punch­ing fight. But if you post one car­toon that some peo­ple take offence at, you run the risk of get­ting expelled. Yes, his school promised to take care of the threats too, but it’s fuck­ing ridicu­lous. Con­sider these two quotes from Rhys’s twit­ter feed.

So yeah, appar­ently, is some­thing is offen­sive to one per­son, a per­fectly accept­able response is to beat the poster/creator up.

Basi­cally what they’re aug is I’ve caused so much offended I don’t have the right to free­dom of speech anymore.

If we abridge free speech because it might offend some­one, then it becomes mean­ing­less. We wouldn’t be able to crit­i­cise Islam or Chris­tian­ity over verses of their holy books. We wouldn’t be able to bust the claims of alter­na­tive med­i­cine ped­dlers. We wouldn’t have a healthy democ­racy, basi­cally. Free­dom of speech is (near) absolute, and it’s absolutely uncon­scionable to start to abridge it.


  1. […] Rhys Mor­gan was called into a meet­ing with his head of year at his sixth form col­lege, about the Jesus and Mo car­toon. He reports being harassed at school and being ostra­cized for post­ing the car­toon. He was later called in again to be told that they were con­sid­er­ing expelling him if he didn’t take the car­toon down. […]

  2. […] Sceptered Isle slides fur­ther into the shit­ter, alas: I can do not bet­ter than repro­duce much of this excel­lent post from a British blog (it pro­vides impor­tant con­text and back­ground). The dif­fer­ence here is that I know the young man in […]

  3. […] All right, this is get­ting ridicu­lous. Now Rhys Mor­gan is get­ting has­sled by his school because he put Jesus & Mo on his face­book page. What started it seems to have been an idiot whin­ing at length that Mor­gan can’t mock Islam, pre­sum­ably com­plained to school admin­is­tra­tors, and now the school is threat­en­ing to expel him over it. […]

  4. Tualha says:

    Mean­while across the pond, where we even spell out free­dom of speech in the first amend­ment, our con­gress is con­sid­er­ing a law called SOPA/PIPA, which would make it really easy to shut down any web­site that lets peo­ple post with­out pre-moderation, and there­fore have a mas­sive chill­ing effect on online speech. Now, if our con­gress rep­re­sented we the peo­ple, this would prob­a­bly never have come up; but since they really rep­re­sent their large “cam­paign donors”, aka givers of legal­ized bribes, includ­ing the con­tent providers who want this law, I think our chances


  5. Sarah says:

    @Tualha: Oh, I know. There’s a mas­sive ban­ner here, after all.

  6. Sec­u­lar­ists should encour­age the spread of the METAMEME. It blocks the growth of vio­lent, intim­i­dat­ing, dog­matic reli­gions such as Islam, in the same way that the mild cow­pox virus blocks the spread of lethal smallpox.

  7. […] the last few days, Rhys Mor­gan has been harassed and threat­ened for sim­ply using the same art­work in his Face­book pro­file as an expres­sion of sol­i­dar­ity with UCL […]

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