'Stop being so damn respectful' say free speech supporters in London

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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Rally for Free Expression in London today.
Image: Tom Morris.
Philosopher A.C. Grayling speaking at the rally.
Image: Tom Morris.

Atheists, secularists, and supporters of free speech rallied in London today to protest what they feel is an "increased confidence of Islamists to censor free expression publicly". Around 200 people gathered on the steps of the memorial to King George V in Old Palace Yard opposite the House of Lords in Westminster.

Anne Marie Waters from the 'One Law for All' group, which protests against sharia law in the United Kingdom, said that freedom of expression was "the greatest freedom we have" and included "the freedom to offend".

Accusations of Islamophobia against those who reposted the Jesus and Mo webcomic was one of a number of incidents highlighted by speakers. Susan Zhuang from the University College London Atheist, Secularist and Humanist society spoke of the reaction to the posting of the cartoon to their Facebook profile: "maybe we were naive but we never thought it would come to this". The university's student union demanded that the group remove the cartoon, but the group declined and launched an Internet petition to "defend freedom of expression".

The blogger and activist Rhys Morgan, who had been previously threatened with libel for saying that a clinic operated in Texas by Stanislaw Burzynski was charging hundreds of thousands of dollars to cancer patients for unproven treatments, also spoke of being threatened by his sixth-form college to remove the Jesus and Mo cartoon from his Facebook account. He said that the staff at his college "implied that [he] would be suspended or expelled", claiming that the image offended Muslims. He also said that he had got threats of violence including someone saying that his house would be burned down, and was called a "God-hater".

The philosophy professor A. C. Grayling and the popular science writer Richard Dawkins both spoke at the rally, with the latter criticising the decision by the organisers of a literary festival in Jaipur, India, to "kowtow to a violent threat" by rescinding an invitation to the author Salman Rushdie based on a demand by "some local Islamic scholar". (Dawkins joked about how, unlike Islamic scholars, "a true 'scholar' studies more than one book".)

Dawkins argued that people should "stop being so damn respectful". Without freedom of speech, Dawkins said, society would be in a "scientific, technological, moral dark age".

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This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.