This is my rutabaga. His Name is Mo.

Don't hate him because he's beautiful.

There are many like him, but he is mine. He has never let me down, and in sharp contrast to the lot of you, he never will. I mean, until he rots.

I would like to take Mo on a trip. It's been 21 years since I lived in England; I thought I could take him there. But I have some concerns — and I'm not just talking about the TSA violating him.

In fact, I'm worried that I might be banned from some places in England if I bring Mo.

The Pineapple Incident

That worry arises from an incident at the University of Reading in England. The University of Reading has something called the Fresher's Fayre every year, at which new students can learn about all the groups and activities open to them and perhaps reconcile themselves to the fact that even with a degree they will never be taught to spell things properly. One of the groups set up to greet new students was the University of Reading Atheist, Humanist & Secularist Society, or RAHS.

RAHS, which has opinions about freedom of expression, and which is in solidarity with other university branches of their group that have recently been disciplined by student unions for blasphemy, decided to express themselves and engender debate by bringing along a pineapple named Mohammad.

Among the material displayed on our stall was a pineapple. We labeled this pineapple "Mohammed," to encourage discussion about blasphemy, religion, and liberty, as well as to celebrate the fact that we live in a country in which free speech is protected, and where it is lawful to call a pineapple by whatever name one chooses.

The end result was that the officials (and I use the term loosely) of the Reading University Student Union shouted at the members of RAHS and kicked them out of the Freshers Fayre. The Student Union defended itself as follows:

Nick Cook, vice-president of student activities at Reading University, defended the union's actions, saying:

"RUSU is dedicated to promoting an environment in which all students feel welcome and included in all of our activities, while at the same time being committed to our members maintaining a culture of free speech.

"Our Equal Opportunities Policy and our Behavioural Policy (which all clubs and societies agree to be bound by), state that RUSU will create a culture based on the principles of fairness, respect and of valuing difference. The events did not comply with these ideals and took the action we felt necessary to maintain the culture that we exist to promote."

There are words I understand in there; I'm just not sure what they mean when you run them together like that. I'm frankly not sure they mean anything.

My Concerns And Questions

You see my dilemma. If I bring Mo to the United Kingdom in this political and — using the term generously — intellectual climate, might I find myself unwelcome?

I've decided some inquiry is in order. I've decided to pose them to Mr. Cook of the RUSU. I recognize that he and the Reading University Student Union are not in charge of the entire United Kingdom, but his attitude and exercise of power, however petty, strike me as emblematic of the attitude that the anti-blasphemy laws ought to be enacted and used to protect professed religious sensibilities from speech that offends people.

So, Mr. Cook, if you would, please:

1. I note that Mohammed is the most popular baby name in England. Does this mean that it's inappropriate for a student to label a pineapple "Mohammed," meaning to offer gentle ribbing of his school chum Mohammed who is a bit of a thicky? Would that be provisionally acceptable until some onlooker forms an opinion that the pineapple is actually named after Islam's prophet? Does it matter what the pineapple-owner's intent is, or is the only question whether or not the onlooker is offended, regardless of whether that offense is based on facts?

2. I understand that you've prohibited naming pineapples Mohammed, deliberately referring to the prophet, as a comment on blasphemy laws and free speech. What about my rutabaga named Mo? Is he a violation of your policies? Some people link Mo is short for Mohammed (in this case it's short for Montesquieu). If people are offended seeing Mo with his ironic name-tagged bowling shirt, because they assume he's a reference to Mohammed, will I be kicked off your campus if I come to visit?

3. Also — and sorry if I am belaboring this point, but I want to understand — what about even shorter names? Can someone have a pineapple on campus with a label that simply says "M."? Or would that be taken as a reference to Mohammed, and therefore banned because you've decided to use your secular power, however petty, to enforce a religion's anti-blasphemy laws? What if someone brought a pineapple simply labeled "you know who?" Would that be taken as a reference to this incident, and therefore an act of labeling the pineapple as Mohammed, and therefore as unlawful blasphemy? My rutabaga Mo might wear such a label, but I want to make it clear that in his case "you know who" is strictly a Harry Potter reference. He's a huge fan. (You have no idea how distressed he is by that woman's new book.)

4. For that matter, at this point, might the professionally and politically offended now view any pineapple displayed on your campus — label or no — as not only defiance of your authority, but as a reference to this incident, and therefore as an implied depiction of Mohammed? Are pineapples now banned on campus because they do not create a "culture based on the principles of fairness, respect and of valuing difference"? What if people try to evade that ban by carrying about other fruit, or even vegetables, intending them to be a reference to the incident and therefore a depiction of Mohammed?

5. On a related note, I assume based on your conduct here that you stand with other Student Unions that have attempted to ban drawn depictions of Mohammed by groups using Student Union resources. Say people wanted to defy that rule. Would it be impermissible not only to post or wear or distribute a detailed drawing of a recognizable Mohammed, but a stick figure labeled "Mohammed"? What about a stick figure labeled "M." or "Mo" or "you know who"? If the idea became sufficiently widespread, and a mere stick figure became in the minds of free speech advocates and blasphemy-ban advocates a generally understood symbol for drawing Mohammed, would you ban stick figures on campus? If not, why not? What's the difference, for the purposes of your decision to use secular power to enforce a religion's blasphemy rules against non-adherents, between (1) a drawing clearly depicting Mohammed, or a pineapple labeled Mohammed, on the one hand, and (2) a stick figure understood by both sides to be intended as a reference to and depiction of Mohammed, or an unlabeled piece of fruit understood by both sides to be a reference to Mohammed, on the other? In fewer words: just how ridiculous do you intend to make yourself?

6. What are you going to do if people start saying that invoking the name Mohammed — even in a discussion about whether or not depictions of Mohammed should be permitted — is blasphemous and offensive? What are you going to do if people start saying they are offended and intimidated and feeling that their differences are not valued merely by this discussion of whether it is appropriate to depict Mohammed?

Mo and I appreciate any responses you — or anyone who advocates enforcement of such anti-blasphemy laws — might be willing to give.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. says

    You'll be okay… The Brits call rutabagas 'swedes'. Swedes are fellow members of the EU and cannot be denied entry, less all sorts of diplomatic kerfluffle ensue.

  2. Dan Irving says

    If simply naming a pineapple after Mo is offensive why aren't they killing off all those people named after him?

  3. says

    @Dan – and suddenly the entire anti-blasphemy establishment is thrown into "NORMAN! COORDINATE!" mode with blinking necklaces and everything. Logic is a terrible thing to throw at an irrational person.

  4. says

    Finally I know what the hell a Rutabaga is, a turnip! No more sleepless nights for me. Although you may find the fact we make rutabaga lanterns for Halloween in northern England a little odd.

  5. Pablo says

    What are you going to do if people start saying that invoking the name Mohammed — even in a discussion about whether or not depictions of Mohammed should be permitted — is blasphemous and offensive?

    "There is no god but Allah and a rutabaga is his prophet!"

    There. World peace ensues.

  6. RogBoy says

    Oh Ken, I rather think you've not appreciated the extent to which censorship is applied here in the UK. You've only to check the BBC website to see details of two people criminally convicted for making "offensive" comments on websites. Not even the "Facebook was hacked" defence could save them. Granted, both defendants would appear to be objectionable idiots, but criminals requiring custodial sentences? Its quite possible to stab someone here and not get a custodial sentence so I hope you appreciate the seriousness of naming a Swede "Mo".

    If you must bring your veg. with you to the UK, I suggest you name it in a manner reminiscent of a different religious figure (say, "Chris"). You'll find the laws protecting one from offence are applied with varying degrees of severity depending on the political correctness value of the (often self-appointed) "victim" group.

    Dare I say, I've detected in your UK related posts a certain disappointment with our contemporary culture. It's possible you might have hoped to encounter a belief in free speech, a culture of liberty, self reliance and/or responsible grown up behaviour. I'm sorry for any confusion, but it was a fking long time ago when we last had that here.

  7. desconhecido says

    It seems that "Blows" is an English surname. What would happen if Mr and Mrs Blows named their son Mohammed?

  8. Jess says

    Personally I think the students should stage a “fruit in” and display pineapples with nametags on them all over the campus. I’m most curious to see Mr. Cooks response to Ken’s inquiry, if in fact he provides one. I am guessing he will ignore it as most irrational people do when confronted with logic.

    @M – once you go rutabaga you never go back baby.

  9. says

    @Jess: We'll, I've attempted to post this to the RUSU Facebook page, and tweeted it to them, and sent it to the general RUSU email address and the one for Mr. Cook's position.

  10. Kevin Kirkpatrick says

    Phew! The first time I encountered this story, I thought it was a US university… was immediately thinking, "ROAD TRIP!"

    That said, would it be in poor form to set up a "Chip In" account to collect funds to ship a nice fruit bowl to the Student Union… with a card like, "Condolences from across the pond – sorry to hear about the confusion y'all are having with the concept of free speech"?

    Seriously, this RAHS group is set in terms of fundraiser opportunities here – pineapple-themed bake sales, pineapple-chucking contests, pineapple t-shirts with speech bubbles saying, "My name is NOT Mohammed". I mean, the possibilities are endless!

  11. says

    "RUSU is dedicated to promoting an environment in which all students feel welcome and included in all of our activities, while at the same time being committed to our members maintaining a culture of free speech"

    I'm pretty sure your actions, Mr. Cook, have made a damn lot of people feel pretty damn unwelcome. I would be one of them.

  12. ElSuerte says

    A few points:

    1) Gillian Gibson was arrested for blasphemy in the Sudan because she allowed her class of sixth graders to name the class teddy bear Mohammad after one of the boys in class. She would have been killed by a sword welding mob, but the prison guards stopped them.

    2) Hate speech and blasphemy have always been in the eye of the beholder. Intent doesn't matter.

    3) I've noticed a cliche when it comes to controversial speech. First you get a generally unthinking denunciation of the speaker as a maladjusted hater. This is followed by a tepid, and often qualified defense of a free speech.

    So in conclusion, I condemn your incitement and denigration of the beliefs of millions of innocent, peaceful Muslims with your shameful Muhammedbega. Here in America, we value free speech, not hate speech.

  13. Mercury says

    I think Jess's fruit-in idea would force the free-expression issue a whole lot better than posting a point-by-point lawyerly critique on the RUSU Facebook page – especially (and this is important) if you go beyond mere pineapples. There are many false pieties that need popping out there are lots of different kinds of fruit. Mix and match people.

    The whole thing would be simply absurd obviously but deploying official and physical force to shut the fruit-in down would be more absurd (especially visually) by several orders of magnitude. Have John Cleese narrate a docudrama about it and you're looking at a viral youtube sensation.

    Obama would publicly request that the fruit-in docudrama be removed from the internet – which would be awesome – but maybe he could be sort of boxed in on the whole issue because, on the one hand, there would be a catchy hip-hop soundtrack which everyone just adores but on the other is the fact that one of the fruits involved is a 40lb watermelon named 'Michelle' crammed into a mauve, Jackie Kennedy, Chanel number.

    Not all fruit-person pairings need be tasteless of course – this could be a platform for very provocative and important art. On the other hand, if the whole thing turned into a super-nova offend-o-rama then maybe it would just consume up all the oxygen surrounding the issue and for years and even decades hence, whenever someone got their knickers in a twist about this-or-that percieved, derivitive insult, you could say: "Dude – remember The Fruit-In?" (it would be capitalized by then) and he/she would say: "Oh…yeah, right…I forgot about that, sorry" like they just remembered some horrid, super mosquito had recently become extinct or something.

    And we could all go back to leading semi-normal, civilized lives.

    Take that Saul Alinsky.

  14. says

    @ElSuerte: How about a denunciation of the speaker as a maladjusted hater, followed by a vigorous and unqualified defense of free speech?

    One of the most pernicious memes is that if you defend anything, you must support it. This is usually a projection from people who can't imagine that anything they, personally, dislike or disapprove of should be allowed, and assume everyone else feels the same way. I think it is important to differentiate defense of an idea from defense of the right of someone to express that idea.

    Another myth, perpetuated by "Banned Books Week" displays that only show "banned books" that bookstore and library patrons are likely to scoff at banning (in other words, they don't own the oxen being gored), is that free speech is valuable only because "good" ideas are sometimes banned — so banning "bad" ideas (meaning, ideas the lukewarm defenders of free speech disagree with) is acceptable, because it's not "socially valuable" speech. Defending speech which is socially worthless and very unlikely to ever be seen as valuable or good is just as important, because it is the valueless, worthless, evil, and repugnant speech which is always first on the chopping block. For every "Finnegan's Wake" banned as "obscenity", there are a thousand "Biker Babes In Bondage" and "Teen Age Sex Nurses" also banned as obscenity. (But far more readable, in my opinion.)

    I'd say it almost tautological: Any idea or expression someone wants to ban becomes socially valuable merely because it's considered important enough to ask the government to ban it.

    In any event, I propose that Ken declare himself a high priest of Mo, and if anyone attempts to charge him with anything, he ought to sue them for blasphemous discrimination against his faith.

  15. says

    On topic – I totally want to have a pineapple called "You Know Who."

    Off topic (for Ken) – I received a pseudo-invoice thing-a-ma-jig in the mail that was a ploy to get me to purchase some kind of extended auto warranty. I sent it off to my state's AG with a letter of complaint. We'll see what happens.

  16. Joe Pullen says

    @Ken, given the 3 oz rule on carry on foods, I think Mo would most likely be “cut down to size” by the TSA. I know – bad joke. Also, I think you should forward Mr. Cooks a picture of Mo. That way he'll know precisely how to identify a politically incorrect vegetable.

  17. Todd E. says

    My impression had been that free speech applies differently in schools because they are their own environment, rather than simply a collection of free individuals (much like employees of a company). So statements upheld by an individual at a college is roughly the same as that college making the statement, and if a college fears that it would fall under legal attack for supporting a statement, it will tend to prevent the student from making the statement. This has certainly been the case at every school I have attended here in the U.S.

    Am I mistaken that students at a particular school are not guaranteed the same freedom of speech as individual citizens?

  18. says

    Todd: I'm not sure what justifications have been developed in England, but in the United States, college students at government schools have broad free speech protections; there are very few instances, if any, where they are narrower under the law than regular citizens in public forums. And certainly a labeled pineapple would not fall outside the First Amendment.

  19. Dan Weber says

    From that I know of reading Eugene Volokh, public universities in the US are more restricted on what restrictions they can put on students.

    Also, no jokes about how Britons need to go to a University for Reading? Or about Mohammed Bay? I am disappoint.

  20. Geoff says

    Ah, Reading. Me old alma-mater. Glad to see nothing has changed.

    Back in my day it was a concerted effort by the socialist worker's party to exclude a student who'd worked in porn from RUSU. We had wit,sarcasm, and the bar manager on our side. They had pomposity, and an inflexible reactionary creed. We won.

  21. Richard George says

    this is the student union, not the university, even worse as it is the kids themselves that are gagging free speech. Back in 1989 I was reprimanded by the SU at Bristol Polytechnic for putting a pig's head in a toilet of the female bathroom during the Halloween RAG Party (I was the RAG president) as it was anti-Semitic … things don't change :(

  22. says

    @Geoff: I have been reliably informed (by countless right wing websites) that pornography is a filthy commie plot to destroy American family values. How, then, can the socialists be against it?

  23. SheriffFatman says

    While I would defend the right of anyone to name their agricultural produce after the religious figures of their choice (I myself own a Phallus impudicus named "Jesus H. Christ" after the reaction its smell invokes in others), I would like to make a couple of points:

    1) the Freshers' Fayre is meant to be a welcoming occasion for new students

    2) in the UK, criticisers of Islam fall broadly into two groups:

    a) those critical of religion in general, but who may well feel that Islam is one of its more egregious examples, especially in its suicide-bombing, blasphemer-executing, woman-oppressing manifestations

    b) those who really, really don't like brown people.

    Among the latter are included such fine upstanding citizens as the British National Party [Nazis], and the English Defence League [absolutely not Nazis, whose choice of a cruciform logo in red, white and black is a complete coincidence].

    Regrettably, the not-so-crypto racists are probably more numerous than the robust secularists, especially now the word "Paki" is no longer considered appropriate in polite discourse.

    For a member of the group on the receiving end of this sort of thing, it can be difficult to distinguish between legitimate, if forthright, discussion of the potential clash between freedom of speech and religious sensitivities, and disguised attacks on the colour of one's skin and general "foreignness".

    In that light, to a degree I understand, if not support, the Union's reaction.

    [@Ken: three UK-related posts in the last 3 days. You do know the bicentennial of the Burning of Washington isn't for another two years, right?]

  24. Jay Z says

    I actually defended offending Muslims in my Communication Approach to Popular Culture class, but reading this blog has really changed how I feel about blasphemy laws (even as a christian). I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about the police, but on the issue of blasphemy laws coming before free speech, I am firmly on the side of free speech.

    That said, I am a compassionate christian and would never choose to intentionally offend a muslim to his or her face. But I reserve the right to do so.

  25. SheriffFatman says


    How often are group b university student atheists?

    Going purely on a gut hunch, and without any data whatsoever, I would go with: as close to never as to make no statistical difference. (Note that the motto of the English Defence League is "In hoc signo vinces", which does not immediately leap to mind when one thinks of atheistic rallying cries.)

    However, that is, unfortunately, not the point.

    The point is whether Muslim students could interpret RAHS' actions as "group b"-type provocation — or rather, whether the Union could so interpret them, and hence seek to protect the new students' feelings. I submit that they could, without being justified either in that interpretation or in their belief that new students require wrapping in cotton wool (though I myself did blub like a baby on my first night at Uni, without even the excuse of any perceived attack on my spiritual beliefs).

    I strongly admire the U.S.'s commitment to free speech, and we could do with more of that over here: I remember with fondness Christopher Hitchens comparing, unfavourably, the wishy-washy language of our Human Rights Act with the "Congress shall make no law" directness of your Bill of Rights.

    The British maxim that gentlemen do not discuss politics or religion still infects our public discourse, at least in respect of the religion part. It is not considered the done thing to criticise, or even question, another's beliefs — especially if one may risk being considered racist as a result.

    Growing up here in the seventies, I do understand the attitude. Humorous songs were written on the theme of "Paki bashing"; the British equivalent of the burning cross on the lawn — the dog shit through the letterbox — was still prevalent.

    None of this excuses the attitude of the Reading University Students' Union. But it might explain it.

    [Also: woot! Response from Ken! *high-fives himself*]

  26. Geoff says


    Not sure, to be honest. Perhaps the defining characteristic of any of these groups is not 'left' or 'right' wingedness exactly but a certain knowledge of what other people shouldn't be getting up to. Pick a philosophy as justification after the fact.

    Also, she had money. Paid off her student loan.

  27. Geoff says


    Ach, regretting that last post now. Way to go there with the pompous over-generalisations.

  28. SheriffFatman says

    @Geoff 2:50pm [what time zone is that?]:

    No, I think you pretty much nailed that one.

  29. Jess says

    @SherrifFatman – nice posts – specially on the "shrooms".

    @Mercury – I’m glad you liked the idea of a “fruit-in” but I believe any such idea is best executed in a more laser focused manner. Specifically if it remained pineapples (to reinforce the point) and having said pineapples dressed up as both Mohammed (little turbans) and Jesus (crowns of thorns) with name tags just to make sure everyone got the “point” and to help keep the officials from making it a purely Islamic argument. I can just imagine it now – sigh – pineapples everywhere – dorm windows, sidewalks and pathways, the cafeteria, classroom tables, the library . . . . .  The John Cleese documentary would of course put it over the top.

    @Geoff – always glad to see some self-reflection. I paid off my outrageous student loan less than two years after I completed my MBA and I didn’t have to pole dance to do it. I could have – seriously- I have the ass for it, I just didn’t – not that I look down on those that take that course of action.

    @MeanDean – Google gets jammed up on a whole bunch of other stuff too – but I won’t go there.

  30. AlphaCentauri says

    Too bad the student union didn't respond more creatively with a fruit-in in the first place. If they found the pineapple offensive, they could have bought a case of them, labeled them with names of famous atheists, and provided them to the tables of any student groups who wished to participate in a counter-protest. More speech AND more pineapple … yum!

    (Sorry, Mo, rutabagas and turnips just can't compete with pineapples.)

  31. Sheriff Fatman says

    @matthew: and I'm sorry to tell you that in the north of England (where Jemima hails from if I read her right), you would be wrong, as you would be in Scotland. In both places, the word "turnip" refers to the vegetable called a "swede" elsewhere in Britain, and unaccountably labelled a "rutabaga" in the former North American colonies.

    They are, of course, the only correct vegetable for Hallowe'en lanterns. Pumpkin lanterns are for those with weak wrists and weaker cutlery.

  32. Mercury says

    Jess: I see that your approach is actually well thought out here and certainly has its unique merits. In the end I'd be more in favor of whatever fruit happening made the biggest splash and promised to be most absurd because the ensuing ruckus would better highlight how absurd the underlying principal and logic of the prohibition is.

    One is tempted to draw parallels between your pineapple idea and the Smurf cartoon/collectible craze of the 1980s.

    In any case I think this whole idea is worthy of full law review treatment in addition to actual work in the field.

  33. Coola Abdoola says

    Mohammed is the most popular baby name in England?? Me thinks England is truly doomed . . .

  34. Stephanie says

    What if you named it 'Mo' for Moses. That way would could be pissing off lots more people!

    \ as a US Catholic, I don't give sod.

  35. Dan Weber says

    Unfortunately there isn't a good place on reddit for popehat links these days. There is no default reddit any more.

    I've tried pushing things to /r/politics and they've gotten deleted, silently, almost immediately. Probably just as well, given the circlejerk of that subreddit.

    There is a /r/FreeSpeech where things here fit, but the population has a significant minority of screwballs, and I don't want to pull more in here.

    /r/WTF and /r/funny sometimes fit, but it's hard to get things going.

    /r/atheism would probably fall over themselves but I refuse to associate with those guys.

    I've tried posting direct links to Popehat, as well as to the things Popehat links to, with middling results.

    I've got 10K+ karma and 7 years under my belt that I'd like to use for a good cause, but I'm not really sure how. Maybe you need to condense everything down to a cat picture.

  36. Craig says

    BBC article discussing new provisions to bring in better legal guidelines on this subject. I would say we do come from different cultural backgrounds and it has long been the case here that words should be more considered than they need to be in the US (the rules for what can and cannot be said durig parlimentary debates are beautifully convoluted). I really wouldn't like to say which approach is right or wrong as I don't remotely consider myself a free speech expert. Any way, here's the link: