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‘Banned’ comedy sketch starts conversation on Bath’s freedom of speech

The issue of the Arts at our university has been at centre stage. Whether or not theatre, dance, and music can compete for their spot in a university dominated by Olympic medallists has been on the mind of those who find themselves at the Edge instead of the Sports Training Village most Wednesday afternoons. The Comedy Writing Improvisation and Performance Society (CWIPS) is one of the newest theatrical societies, and their entrance to the campus scene has recently been met with some discomfort.

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University of Bath is not known for censorship

“The Bible According to CWIPS” was the title of the performance that had the cramped, upstairs-corner of the Bath Brew House roaring with laughter. The show combined pop culture, Richard Dawkins, and the bestseller of all time – the Bible – to construct an amusingly witty performance. However, prior to the opening night, the society was met with some rather strong requests to edit the show.

Tackling a sensitive issue for some, the committee of CWIPS had tough decisions to make regarding which sketches would make the cut. The aim was to have the crowd laughing out of hilarity rather than uneasiness, so the committee turned to the Students’ Union for a second opinion on one particular sketch. Two SU officials concluded with the committee that the sketch crossed the fine line between humour and offensiveness, and the sketch was swiftly removed from the show.

The idealistic notion that ‘freedom of speech’ seems most poignant in regards to the arts. Material specifically written to challenge perceptions and mock culture.

However, during the opening week one of the SU officials quietly attended one of the rehearsals. Just four hours prior to opening night the committee of CWIPS was told that a sketch involving the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed titled ‘Cooking with Christ’ should be cut. “The SU couldn’t give more of an explanation,” recalls one of the members of the committee regarding the lack of justification given for the changes being made the show, especially on such short notice.

It became known that the Chaplaincy of the University had become involved in the decision making process of the SU. “We were told that the chaplaincy had read it and pronounced that sketch too graphic”, the committee member said, “we come under the authority of the SU, so whilst we don’t necessarily agree with what they asked us to cut we have to respect them as they are elected to their position, however the chaplaincy is not part of the SU.”

The notion that a specific group within the University can influence how the arts at Bath are performed should concern us. Whilst some might sympathise with ‘offensive’ material, this by no means should limit or create a barrier to what we can and can’t say or performed.

The Chaplaincy claimed that the show would have caused “great offence” as the scenes that were cut were “extreme”, it was also added that “the concept of freedom of speech is important and should be respected”.

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The idea, therefore, of consulting the Chaplaincy might seem less radical, but the SU’s subsquent implication that the sketches should be removed should alert us.

During a conversation with the SU official, it was made clear that the decisions communicated to the CWIPS committee had been made so as to avoid complaints. Since the show was taking placein a public domain, the inclusivity of the Students’ Union had to be “maintained”.

“We worked very hard in order to make sure our material was enjoyable and pleasant for people of all faiths and backgrounds,” both members of CWIPS highlighted.

The freedom of expression is an important principle to maintain intact at university, especially regarding the arts. Even though the SU has had little experience with censorship of the arts at the University of Bath, the recognition that artistic expression is essential for students to feel free and creative needs to be maintained.

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