You have no right to abuse your freedoms

First published by Nouse (22 Jan 2013).

A few days ago, Julie Burchill, newspaper columnist and troll extraordinaire, wrote an article for the Observer that was quickly identified as a completely vile tirade of abuse and intolerance towards transgender people. Burchill’s article was taken down, but later republished by Toby Young, fellow bastion of the commentariat, sub-bridge dweller at The Telegraph, in a show of support for – you’ve guessed it – Burchill’s “freedom of speech”.

Incidentally, this week also saw the legalisation of public insults, in an amendment to Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 – you’re now free to legally insult each other. Congratulations, you may kiss the Crown Prosecution Service.

Now this interests me because, here at York, we love a good fight over freedom of speech. If I had a cookie for every time somebody has barked that Voltaire quote at me during my time at university, I’d be in a diabetic coma. Our excitement over this issue flared up again recently, with the argument over the now infamous ‘Spotted: University of York Library’ page.

The page’s creators stopped posting in response to accusations of sexual harassment. The ensuing furore involved a lot of shouting about people’s right to freedom of speech having been violated, as well as some hilarious suggestions that we might be living in some kind of totalitarian state.

I would like to assure all the wannabe Bradley Mannings that our freedoms are perfectly intact, which I am actually demonstrating by writing a comment for a student newspaper.

What I would like to ask, however, is what exactly you intend to do with those freedoms that you fight so valiantly to preserve. Because, last time I checked, the right to freedom of speech is a valuable tool for calling authority into check and for ensuring that we are all free and able to live the way we want, so long as we don’t pose harm to others. That seems to me like a pretty important right, and that’s what I want to fight for. That’s what Voltaire was willing to die for.

Fighting for the right to offend, insult, marginalise, and outrightly scare people who are less privileged than you is a somewhat less noble calling. George Orwell didn’t write Winston Smith into existence to demonstrate the perils of being prevented from telling your opponent to get back in the kitchen, or whatever is the misogynist joke du jour.

It is often observed that the people who screech about their freedoms being taken away when they are challenged on the internet are conspicuous by their absence at Amnesty International Meetings, campaigning against the incarceration of Pussy Riot, or the fact that far too often in everyday life we are still asked to define as either men or women, preventing many people from properly expressing their identities. These are freedom of speech issues and they are worth challenging.

So yes, freedom-of-speechers, you do have the right to do those other things. You do have the right to call someone a “tranny”, or to publicly humiliate someone on a social network. But why would you want to? It’s a cheap shot, it’s not funny, and it doesn’t make the world a better place.

Freedom of speech is a human right, but rights bring with them responsibilities. It’s a right predicated on an equal platform for all voices – if you already have a significant platform because of, say, your gender, your ethnicity, your class status, or even your access to a column in a national newspaper, then using that platform to attack minorities is not a use of this freedom, it’s an abuse of it.

Perhaps we should treat freedom of expression like the infra-red helicopter I got my dad for Christmas – it’s brilliant, and everyone wants to use it, but it only works if it’s used properly. Repeatedly fly in into Grandma, and you’ll probably break it. And Grandma. If you care about your freedom of expression, the only way to preserve that freedom is to use it properly. Anyone wishing to defend their right to scare, upset or silence others is standing against the values of universal freedom of expression.

By silencing others like this, by ensuring that our university is not a safe place to express oneself, you are not supporting that freedom. You’re only acting out of self-interest, ensuring freedom of speech for yourself, and those with the same privileges as you. You are devaluing, damaging and curtailing the value you claim to uphold. If we really find these freedoms to be as important as we say, why denigrate them by using them to mock the weak rather than challenge injustice?

Sophie Miller


‘A Brief History of Palestine’ at the University of York

A write-up of the University of York Palestinian Solidarity Society’s talk ‘A Brief History of Palestine’ on the 17 January 2013 at the University of York.

The University of York Palestinian Solidarity Society has not been ratified by York University’s Student Union. This was the sad news, Sanja Bilic co- chair of the society told a packed lecture hall last Thursday. Arguably one of the most attended events of the academic year so far, students had gathered to hear Mahmoud Abu-Rahma, currently based at the York Centre for Applied Human Rights, speak to create awareness amongst York students of the constricted reality Palestinians face day to day. The grounds for which YUSU have rejected the claim for the society to become official were according to Mobeen Hussain, the other co-chair, because they thought the society was more suited to being a campaign. York Vision also reported reasons of YUSU believing there was a lack of potential for the society to develop its members. As Hussain has rightly pointed out societies such as Amnesty are also based on campaigning. York PEN, too, is fundamentally a campaign-based society, and the amount of people in the lecture hall on Thursday surely denies any qualms about the society not being able to develop members.

Abu-Rahm, who is originally from Gaza, centred his talk on the brief history of Palestine using dates and maps. He began with the date 1897, when the first conference of the Zionist Movement discussed potential areas for Jewish homeland, which included Uganda and Argentina as well as Palestine. For religious reasons Palestine was later agreed upon. He was careful to make clear the British involvement in the forming of the state of Israel. The 1917 Balfour agreement, making clear the British government viewed “with favour” Palestine as a homeland for the Jewish people, was signed by the monarchy. Furthermore, from 1922 Palestine was under British mandate.  The British allowed Jewish immigrants to begin a new life in Palestine and it was only after the 1936 Palestinian strike that they promised to limit the migration. In 1947 the conflict between the Palestinians and the Jewish settlers became too much for the British army and they handed the problems over to the UN. This British involvement is what has made many people particularly angry that Britain abstained from the UN vote in November 2012 to recognise Palestine as an independent state.


Abu-Rahma also used the map above to illustrate Palestine loss of land, between 1947 and 2000. The map clearly shows how the Palestinian territory has been reduced to little more than islands in an Israeli sea. The amount of checkpoints, road blocks and the wall which Abu-Rahma explained is not just a single concrete structure but also a series of trenches and barbed wire, severely inhibits the movement and physiological state of Palestinians, they don’t have to just divert their journey to go through the checkpoints but they have to face up to the intimidation which each checkpoint brings. The constricting tactics of the Israeli government is a constant reminder of the Israeli army and therefore the potential threat of violence. This creates a never-ending atmosphere of discomfort for the Palestinians. As Abu-Rahma says the numerous attempts at peace including the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995, don’t seem to have done anything to alleviate Israeli dominance. He stated how whereas he was able to study at university in the West Bank, now for those living in Gaza this is not possible.

The second speaker was Professor David Pegg, a solidarity supporter of Palestine and a member of BRICUP, British Committee for the Universities of Palestine. He called for a boycott of Israeli universities. Although many have cited this as detrimental to the cause, as surely academics are the most likely to support a solution, he cited a recent petition calling for Israeli academics to show support for the Palestinians, which only 4% of Israeli academics signed, and later the 3rd speaker Monica Wusteman spoke of universities supporting military intelligence agencies. If for some people a boycott seems too far, he called for at least boycotting Israeli goods, which have been produced in the occupied territories. Wusteman lastly issued an invitation to students to join the York branch of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

The talks and accompanying Q&A section definitely served their purpose in creating awareness of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ways in which to take action against the occupation. Perhaps sometimes the talks were slightly one-sided, The Guardian has reported Israelis have recently been active in recognising the Palestinian plight and have been taking action through the initiative Real Democracy, a Facebook group which has provoked hundreds of Israelis to donate their votes to Palestinians for the upcoming elections. However, this does not discard the fact that the majority of Israelis still do not recognise the Palestinian state and our doing nothing to improve their civil rights. If you want to show your support for the Palestine in York please join the Palestinian Solidarity Society and sign their petition. Future talks will be very much looked forward to.



York University Palestinian Solidarity Society

York Palestine Solidarity Campaign

York University Centre for Applied Human Rights

Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights


Real Democracy Facebook group

York Vision article

Guardian Article

Do you have strong feelings about this? Why not present a formal and constructive counterargument below? YorkPEN is a student society that endeavours to protect freedom of speech, and hopes to encourage debate on both sides. However, aggressive, vulgar or personally-targeted trolling will not be tolerated. (Ed.)