Drawing it on yourself
13 Jun 07

It ended, as fusses often do, with an almost inaudible whimper. After articles in the red-tops, columns in the Sundays, fury on blogs, and the ever present threat of ‘Muslim anger’, the Crown Prosecution Service, in the end, declined to press charges against the editor and guest editor of Clare College, Cambridge freesheet Clareification, who had the temerity to have a pop at organised religion in 21st century Britain.

Let’s be clear on this: Clareification was, in many ways, crass. The ‘Clareifornication’ column provided a peek into the sex lives of Oxbridge undergrads that few of us wanted (and one can be assured that, for those who do want, there are suitable websites, possibly advertised in the classified sections of Tatler and Harpers and Queen).

The admittedly tongue-in-cheek analysis of the candidates for president of the Union of Clare Students peddled the kind of ‘so post-modern it’s pre-modern’ bigoted humour that has served Jimmy Carr and Ricky Gervais so well.

And yes, there was some material that could be perceived as offensive to religion – the words ‘I hate Islam’ being a pretty accurate reflection. There was also a critique of the inconsistencies and inaccuracies of St Mark’s gospel, which some Christians may have found offensive should they have bothered to wade through it. But frankly, whether the material was ‘offensive’ or not isn’t even part of the argument. In a free society, ideas, no matter how dearly held, must be open to ridicule.

As Homer Simpson once said, there’s a time and a place for everything – college. So why did this prime example of youthful high jinx/idiocy make it all the way to the Crown Prosecution Service?

The issue seems to have gained ground when the Cambridge Evening News splashed big with accusations of ‘vile racism’ on Friday 9 February. The same report said college authorities had been ‘bombarded’ with complaints from ‘enraged students’. This came a week after the publication had originally appeared. The students involved had, at that point, already been told that they would be subject to a disciplinary hearing with a senior tutor at the university. By the time that hearing came to pass, it had transformed into a conference on damage limitation. But clearly the damage limitation didn’t quite work. An early report said the college had made the police aware of the matter, but the police initially said that the case was ‘matter for the university authorities to deal with.’ As the media coverage grew, the police became involved.

The student who had edited the edition was moved from his rooms, initially, according to the university, to avoid door-stepping journalists. Later, he was moved from university property entirely, because of police concerns over his safety and that of other students.

This came after Cambridge Mosque issued a press release stating: ‘The University’s record of freedom of expression is a matter of record and of pride. However it is clear that incitement to religious and ethnic hatred is at all times immoral, and that its consequences for harmony between communities and nations can be grave.’

What followed was interesting. Rather than rally in uproar to the free speech barricades, the students at Clare seemed to close ranks, perhaps fearful of a class-based backlash against ‘posh’ Oxbridge students from the mid-market tabloids.

Two students, both the editor-in-chief and the guest editor, were questioned by police, and their files sent to the Crown Prosecution Service. Index on Censorship understands that the CPS did believe a crime had been committed under Section 4 of the Public Order Act, but did not press charges, as it would not have been ‘in the public interest’ to do so. Presumably the fear of courtroom demonstrations by Muslim groups outweighed the need to prosecute the students for having potentially incited, well, demonstrations by Muslim groups.

Further, one of the students involved claimed police told him that he had been wasting police time when they ‘could have been investigating rapes’, and that he should ‘reflect’ on the trouble he had caused. As the student put it, this seemed to demonstrate ‘a warped understanding of blame and causality’. When asked about this by, an investigating officer from Cambridgeshire police said he had ‘nothing more to add from a police perspective.’

The Public Order Act seems to have been used as a proxy, shorthand incitement law. Rather than protect the students’ right to free expression, the police took the option of reprimanding them under a catch-all charge.

The Incitement to Racial and Religious Hatred Act may be relatively toothless, but what it has done is to raise religious groups expectations that the law will be on their side in any free speech issue. Police reaction so far seems to have proved they are right.

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.