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There are not many things that I think should be seen as an absolute. However, one thing I do make an exception for is freedom of speech. It is a key aspect of our society, one that should not be diluted. No matter how repugnant we may find what is being said, we have a responsibility as a free society to protect the right of an individual to say what they think. To borrow a well known quote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I’ll defend to the death you’re right to say it.”

This is why the University College of London’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society should be applauded for refusing to bow down to pressure to remove an advertisement for a social event depicting Jesus and Muhammad.

The ad, from the ‘Jesus and Mo’ series of cartoons, was the victim of several complaints by members of the student body. It’s for the benefit of the UCL Student Union that the society took a stand. In these instances, it’s important to remember that people do not have a right to remain unoffended. People like to think that they do. That if people are subjected to something they are offended by then the person who provides the offence should be silenced. I disagree.

In the instance of this cartoon, I see absolutely no reason why a secular University society should get into trouble for using a cartoon of the Islamic prophet. I understand that for Muslims, it is against their religious beliefs to create depictions of Muhammad. But then why should people who don’t subscribe to their beliefs be subject to the same rules? It is obvious to my mind that people should be able to draw and say what they want. People that are going to be offended by such a small thing will likely actively seek out things to be offended by.

In many situations such as this, those in opposition and who feel that religion in particular deserves some sort of respect or protection will attempt to find some sort of hypocrisy or flaws in the argument. Commonly, they’ll say: “What about racism?” Well, what about it? Racism is one of those repugnant things I mentioned earlier. I don’t understand it, I don’t condone it, nor do I like anyone who is a racist. However, would I dare say that a racist couldn’t spread their bile, solely because it offends me? Of course not. I’d like to take the moral high ground and attempt to educate this person out of their ignorance and blind hatred. The same applies to homophobes, sexists, anti-Semites etc.

Certainly I don’t object to the title of being a free speech absolutist and I don’t think anyone should. I maintain that it’s the best way of eliminating ignorance through challenging people’s pre-conceptions. Yes it means that occasionally you will come across things that you don’t like and that may well offend you. But if that makes you examine your opinions and beliefs critically? All the better.

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