Just because we have the freedom to do something, doesn’t mean we should do it. This line is often repeated in response to people claiming ‘free expression’ in response to criticism. It’s true, of course. I’m free to stick straws up my nose and grunt like a maniac – but I won’t. I’m free to call an overweight friend fat, but it wouldn’t be a nice thing to do. We rightly refrain from doing things that we are free to do, all the time.
Now imagine that the freedom to stick straws up my nose is taken away, on the grounds that a group of people don’t like it; they’re offended. How should I respond? One way is to capitulate – I didn’t need to put straws up my nose anyway. The danger here is that by letting people get away with curtailing our freedom purely because they don’t like something opens us up to all sorts of problems. I don’t like pop music, and hate hearing it in public. I’ve never suggested that it should be banned, but if I put my own preferences above the civil liberties of others, I’d ban it in a flash. This system only works if you privilege particular groups over others; an idea unpalatable to a liberal.
The other path is defiance. We show that we will not be forced into not doing something just because it’s ‘offensive’ to (some) others. The only way to really defy such force is to do the thing that is prohibited. To wear the t-shirts banned by a students’ ‘union’. To draw Mohammed.
Yes, drawing Mohammed may upset people, and ordinarily it would be wrong to do so if your goal is to upset people (though if you needed to depict Mohammed for any kind of project, then some people being offended isn’t a good enough reason to rethink your project). But if you are told “you aren’t allowed to depict Mohammed” or “since I can’t force you not to depict Mohammed then I’ll threaten you or others with harm instead” then I think you have an obligation, or at the very least the right to say “no, I will not be forced in that way”. The only way to make this statement is to draw Mohammed.
So, if the LSE SU want to ban wearing Jesus and Mo t-shirts from their events, those students committed to freedom of expression (not just atheists/humanists) ought to consider protesting by going ahead and wearing these t-shirts in public places around the LSE.
Yes, just because you are free to do something doesn’t mean you should do it. But if you aren’t free to do it? I think that provides a very good reason to do it.