Do you have a right to not be offended? The University of Toronto Secular Alliance (UTSA) doesn’t think so, and hosted an event recently to say as much.
For three hours on a blustery fall afternoon, the patio outside of Sid Smith was transformed into a “free speech zone.” Underneath signs proclaiming “The campaign for free expression, because nothing is sacred” and “There probably is no god, now stop worrying and live your life” — the slogan of a controversial British campaign that saw atheist advertisements adorn buses — members of the UTSA ironically read sections of holy books, made speeches, and invited passersby to write whatever they pleased on a white board.
As people nearby hocked copies of the Workers’ Vanguard, Mitchell Gerskup, president of the UTSA, explained the two goals of the demonstration.
The group was hoping to “raise awareness of and protest blasphemy laws around the world, and to host a forum where people could speak their minds,” said Gerskup, who is an economics and philosophy major.
UTSA was playfully mocking the world’s major religions, explained Gerskup, to show that ideas should not be censored. Galvanized by the UN’s forthcoming consideration of a resolution that would protect religions from blasphemy, the event was one of many taking place around the globe. Sept. 30 was chosen to mark the fourth anniversary of the publication of the Danish cartoons that were widely seen as blasphemous in the Muslim world.
“I think there’s very real value created in society when all viewpoints can be expressed without fear of reprisal. The most obvious being that when somebody challenges your beliefs, even if they’re ultimately wrong, you have to examine your own beliefs that much more thoroughly to know why they’re right,” said Gerskup.
The event went smoothly, with passing students taking the time to slam everything from cigarettes to atheist dogma, until one irate bystander tossed UTSA’s copy of The Satanic Verses (the novel that prompted Iran’s supreme leader to declare a fatwa on Salman Rushdie) into the trash.
“We were happy that a lot of people showed up to defend their religious beliefs in a variety of ways,” said Gerskup. “The throwing of The Satanic Verses in the garbage wasn’t cool, but the fact that he was willing to stand up for what he believed in was.”