I wrote about Erdogan’s use of Europe’s lese-majeste laws for the Guardian

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Again, still catching up on updates. I wrote in March about how the Turkish Prez was using outdated and often largely forgotten about lèse-majesté laws in order to silence critics in Europe, but how it was actually backfiring. It prompted several countries to rush through changes and abolishments of the laws, therefore actually scoring an accidental victory for freedom of speech. You can read the published version here or the unedited one below.

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It seems as though hardly a day goes by without Turkey’s President Recep Tayipp Erdoğan and his sense-of-humour free Justice and Development Party (AKP) government having a go at someone. Over the past few weeks, their spectacular ability to take offence and ping out accusations of ‘spy!’ and ‘terrorist!’ at anyone within reach has grown such momentum that the renowned Do-Not-Insultan has now turned his thin-skinned, pointy-finger towards free speech in Europe.

Since Angela Merkel’s decision to approve a prosecution request for comedian – although admittedly, not a very funny one – Jan Boehermann for his ‘insulting’ song Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdoğan, the Turkish president has been capitalising on his success. It seems he is actively targeting other European countries that, like Germany, still have outdated, and often near forgotten about, lèse-majesté laws.

Similar to Turkey’s Article 229, which concerns defamation of the president, these ‘injured majesty’ laws make it a crime to insult rulers or heads of state. They often include other ‘friendly’ leaders, too – a probe under section 103 of Germany’s criminal code prohibits “insulting organs or representatives of foreign states”.

Turkey recently attempted to utilize the Dutch version of the law, requesting that Turks working in The Netherlands snitch on each other. A leaked email from Rotterdam’s Turkish Consulate General to Turkish organisations operating in the country appeared to ask them – although the consulate insists it was all just a misunderstanding – to report back on anyone who had insulted either the Turkish president or the Turkish state.

Dutch-Turkish journalist Ebra Umar was then arrested on holiday in Turkey after someone reported her for tweeting sections of a column she’d written for the Dutch Metro criticizing the email. She compared it to practices used by the Dutch arm of the Nazi Party during WWII, which probably hit a nerve after the media furore that surrounded a speech from Erdoğan in January that appeared – another misunderstanding – to cite Hitler’s Germany as an example of effective government.

Dutch comedian Hans Teeuwen could be prosecuted, too. When asked about the Boehermann case in an interview he claimed that Erdoğan used to be a “boywhore” in an Istanbul brothel and that the leader still owes him a blowjob.

Switzerland has a lèse-majesté law and the Turkish government this week demanded the removal of a photo of a boy from an exhibition in Geneva that associated Erdoğan with his death – he was killed by a tear gas canister fired by police during the 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests. The Swiss government rejected the demand, but if you live in Italy, Spain, Denmark or Norway, you might want to watch your back.

Erdoğan’s attempts to silence his critics often have the opposite result – there are few better instances of the Streisand-effect (when an attempt to hide something actually results in far more publicity) than the time Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson waded into the debate over whether a Turkish doctor had shared a meme that compared Erdoğan to Gollum, for which he faced prosecution, or far friendlier Sméagol. It resulted in the little-seen images being shared by news outlets across the globe. Attempts by the Tall Man – a nickname used by the president’s supporters, and with a well-concealed snigger, his detractors – to flex his muscles beyond Turkey’s borders and have a go at freedom of speech in Europe have also backfired.

Outrage at the use of laws that were, until now, rarely used outside of Thailand, has caused European countries to scramble to rid themselves of the lèse-majesté. On Thursday, Germany’s Justice Ministry completed a draft to abolish its version. Chancellor Merkel had previously promised the law would be removed by 2018 as a result of the embarrassing Boehermann affair and the furious debate over freedom of speech that followed, but it’s been fast tracked. The draft included the statement: “the idea that foreign state representatives need special protection against insults does not accord with the era.”

The Dutch government, too, has said it will reform its old law. Just last year there were calls for it to be removed after an activist faced prosecution under the lèse-majesté for saying “fuck the king” when he was arrested for protesting. Erdoğan’s current taste for the law, however, has prompted Dutch MPs to push for a removal, and quickly. The justice minister said the constitution should not be a “museum for out-of-date articles”.

In Switzerland, repeal of the law has been called for by politicians from both sides of the political spectrum in the wake of the Böhmermann case. Former cabinet minister Jean-Christophe Schwaab said: “The fact that you can be prosecuted for insulting a foreign head of state here in Switzerland reminds me of the Middle Ages”.

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I wrote about no platforming in UK universities (and why it sucks) for the Huffington Post

No platforming, Huffington Post

I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about no platforming in UK universities because in real life, students, you can’t just unfriend people who annoy you. It’s an update of an old blog post that you can read here, or the published version here

I started university when I was 24, almost 25. Having left school at 15 with no qualifications, I knew nothing about education and wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I had expected to be challenged. Not just academically, but politically. I had this notion – fuelled, no doubt, by various on-screen depictions of the political fervour of uni campuses of yore – that university was this feisty environment populated by politically passionate folk in whacky clothes, where radical debate and experimentation were high on the agenda.

What it turned out to be, however, was a place of wet sensitivity where girls – and boys – in Ugg(ly) boots experimented with baking. To put it frankly, after years of pining for higher-education my fellow students were boring and the only controversial debate that took place was about which canteen to buy lunch from.

It didn’t surprise me then, to see my university, Bath Spa, in the red-zone in Spiked magazine’s Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR). Spiked examined the policies and actions of British universities and students’ unions, ranking them on their commitment to free speech using a traffic-light system: red for universities or unions that have banned and actively censored ideas on campus, amber for “chilled free speech through intervention”, and green for institutes that have a hands-off approach.

 Just to preempt any snarky comments about ‘rubbishy’ universities, let me point out that Oxford was red too, and Cambridge amber. In fact, only one in five universities were ranked as green, meaning that they embrace an open approach to free speech, whereas more than double that figure were ranked as red. In red universities, the idea of “safe space” is deemed more important than freedom of speech.

Germaine Greer has found herself falling short of safe space policy, again, as a recent petition called for her to be banned from a women’s rights lecture at Cardiff University because of her views on transgender women. It’s the latest in a string of incidents banning outspoken people with controversial views from events. In February, comedian Kate Smurthwaite also ran into trouble at Goldsmiths University when her show, Lefty Cockwomble – which, ironically, was about free speech – was cancelled. Why? Because Smurthwaite believes in the Nordic model of legislation on sex work, which criminalises buying rather than selling sex. Goldsmiths’ feminist society is, however, “‘for’ [the full legalisation of] sex working”. Her show had nothing to do with prostitution.

The theory of safe space is that people of all identities and backgrounds have the freedom to express themselves in an environment that is tolerant – great. However, the current, rigorous enforcement of the concept is beginning to sound a lot like censorship. A set of ‘if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’ rules, it’s as though the Facebook generation can’t handle the analogue world unless it meets their community standards.

I don’t agree with Greer’s view that trans women are “not women”, and I don’t think that all opinions deserve a platform. I do believe, however, that in real life, you can’t just block people you don’t get on with. There is no ‘hide this content’ button. There is no network of sky-geeks, ready to remove material that violates life’s code of conduct. Learning to communicate with people who hold different views from your own is one of life’s biggest lessons and one that university plays a vital role in. It is there, after all, to prepare you for the world, not shield you from it.

It’s good to see students, who are increasingly known for their apathy, show some guts in their refusal to have their views challenged, at least. Is shying away from real debate the new radical though, or is it just a symptom of a world that seeks to shut down opinions that differ from mainstream, community approved thought?

It seems to me that building a community of like-minded people might give students the freedom of tolerance, but it doesn’t necessarily teach them to tolerate. Little value is placed, for instance, in the views of students that don’t match the ideal – what about their safe space? Just like Facebook, increasingly at universities you are only really expected to ‘like’, agree, or shut up. No wonder my peers preferred baking.

Censorship on campus: In real life, you can’t just unfriend people who annoy you

Free speech scribble wall

Facebook-style community standards are making our universities boring. Censorship doesn’t just give students the freedom of tolerance, it prevents them from learning to tolerate.

I started university when I was 24, almost 25. Having left school at 15 with no qualifications, I knew nothing about education and wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I had expected to be challenged. Not just academically, but politically. I had this notion – fuelled, no doubt, by various on-screen depictions of the political fervour of uni campuses of yore – that university was this feisty environment populated by politically passionate folk in whacky clothes, where controversial debate and experimentation were high on the agenda.

What it turned out to be, however, was a place of wet sensitivity where girls – and boys – in Ugg(ly) boots experimented with baking. To put it frankly, after years of pining for higher-education my fellow students were boring (not you, Anna) and the only controversial debate that took place was about which canteen to buy lunch from.

Bath spa university logoIt didn’t surprise me then, to see my university, Bath Spa, in the red-zone in Spiked magazine’s recent Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR). Spiked examined the policies and actions of British universities and students’ unions, ranking them on their commitment to free speech using a traffic-light system: red for universities or unions that have banned and actively censored ideas on campus, amber for “chilled free speech through intervention”, and green for institutes that have a hands-off approach. More worryingly though, Bath Spa was listed as one of five universities that actively prevented it.

Just to preempt any snarky comments about ‘rubbishy’ universities, let me tell you that Oxford was red too, and Cambridge amber. In fact, only one in five universities were ranked as green, meaning that they embrace an open approach to free speech, whereas more than double that figure were ranked as red.

In red universities, the idea of “safe space”, a commitment to provide a tolerant environment for students of all identities so that they are free to express who they are, is deemed more important than freedom of speech. The origins of safe space make sense – it was born out of US protests against military recruitment on campus in the 70s and the ‘no-platform’ policy against fascist groups later that decade. But the current, rigorous enforcement of the concept is beginning to sound a lot like censorship. It’s as though the Facebook generation can’t handle the analogue world unless it meets community standards.

Comedian Kate SmurthwaiteLast week, for example, comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s show, Lefty Cockwomble, was cancelled at red-ranked Goldsmiths University because her views on sex work were flagged as inappropriate. The comedian ‘likes’ the Nordic model of legislation on sex work – which criminalises buying, rather than selling, sex – while Goldsmiths’ feminist society is, according to one of the event’s organisers, “’for’ [the full legalisation of] sex working”.

The society voted 70:30 in favour of letting the event go ahead. However, Smurthwaite was branded ‘whorephobic” by a few vehement opposers who threatened to picket the event anyway so the community moderators pulled the plug. Ironically, the show was about free speech and had nothing to do with prostitution, but Smurthwaite is not alone. Both Julie Bindle and Germaine Greer have found themselves unfriended by unions too, for their controversial views on trans women.

A no-platform attitude to outlandishly degrading content or sexist, homophobic or racist hate speech is understandable. Yet Goldsmiths’ view on prostitution is too radical to sensibly enforce rules that exclude non-believers – their femsoc only has 220 likes on Facebook, but the Nordic Model Advocates have a whopping 815. Besides, in real life, you can’t just block people you don’t get on with. There is no ‘hide this content’ button. There is no network of sky-geeks, ready to remove material that violates life’s code of conduct. Learning to communicate with people who hold different views from your own is one of life’s biggest lessons and one that university plays a vital role in.

Supporters of safe space argue that while debate is important, there is a place for the discussion of opposing or potentially hurtful views and that place is not, as they see it, students’ homes. Providing a platform for ideas legitimises them, and broadcasting one’s opinion is not an absolute right. It’s good to see students, who are increasingly known for their apathy, show some guts. However, it’s all a bit ‘if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’. Building a community of like-minded people might give students the freedom of tolerance, but it doesn’t teach them to tolerate.

If the recent attacks on Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo highlighted anything, it’s that we live in a diverse world where the inability to efficiently debate opposing views can have disastrous consequences. Sometimes in life, there are going to be people who don’t like you and university should help prepare us for that. I did learn one lesson in tolerance from my university, however – how not to deal with people who bore me.