Germany's Libel Laws: A Threat To Democracy [Guest Post By Colin Cortbus]

Colin Cortbus is a student and freelance journalist – his freelance investigative work has appeared in the UK Daily Mirror, the UK Daily Star, and Channel 7 (Israel).

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has come under intense international scrutiny over authoritizing state attorneys to prosecute a TV comedian over a vulgar, satirical poem he performed lampooming Turkey’s brutal dictator Tayyip Recep Erdogan. But the issue goes far beyond Merkel’s cozying up to the tyrant in Ankara; Germany’s libel and anti-insult laws have long been a weapon of choice for those seeking to suppress the marketplace of ideas. Hitler himself, prior to assuming power, was also a vicious libel plaintiff. In Germany, you can even get into free speech trouble for “libeling” the dead!

The Boehmerman case and the wrong debate about free speech law

Whenever he is not busy having Kurds killed, imprisoning journalists, or denying the Armenian Genocide, Turkish strongman Erdogan is a sensitive, fragile snowflake, easily offended by the many people who laugh at his ridiculous and scary regime. Having Turkish citizens who purportedly compare him to Gollum from Lord of the Rings prosecuted apparently doesn’t satisfy his urges; Recently, Erdogan’s regime has attempted to muzzle the laughter in Germany to. It started off with calling in Germany’s Embassador to Turkey in late March after satire show Extra 3 on Germany’s state-owned TV channel NDR had run a song mocking Erdogan’s human rights record, saying “a journalist who writes anything that Erdogan doesn’t like, he’ll be in jail by tomorrow”. They had also suggested Erdogan’s vision of equal rights for women consisted of cops beating up female anti-government protesters as well as the men.

It was in the context of this row that another state TV comedian, Jan Boehmermann, dedicated his show to discussing the extent of the free speech rights guaranteed on paper by Article 5 of the German Basic Law. He highlighted that laws draw the limit of the permissible at a legal concept known as Smäh-Kritik, vilifying criticism. He said he would perform a poem named after the concept to exemplify that, and introduced it saying “what comes next would be forbidden in Germany”. Then he went on to read out a vulgar text hyperbolically accusing Erdogan, among many other things, of fellating with a “hundred sheep”, having a small penis, smelling worse than the fart of a pig and watching child porn as well as beating women. He concluded his poem saying, “this is what you can’t say in Germany”.

The rest is history. Erdogan complained about the poem under two separate German anti-insult laws, firstly the arcane Article 103 of the criminal code, banning “the insulting of foreign heads or institutions of state” (which requires authorization by the government for prosecution to occur) and then secondly filed a legal request for prosecution under the regular law banning insults against persons, Article 185 of the criminal code (which any person can use, without any special authorization). Merkel’s embattled government then issued the authorization for prosecution under Article 103, much to the surprise of press commentators. They had argued the second complaint was a “bridge” over politically hot waters that Erdogan had built for Merkel, allowing her to refuse to issue the controversial authorization under the arcane and unpopular Article 103, which even she herself has said she intends to repeal soon, but still ensuring criminal charges against comedian Boehmerman could proceed under a different law

The attack on Boehmerman’s speech rights is not the first time Article 103 has been used to suppress democratic speech at the behest of the powerful. In
the 1960s it has used so frequently to persecute pro-democracy movement refugees from Iran that itbecame known as the “Shah-article”. In the 1980s it was used tolegitimize police action against protests who held up a banner describing Pinochet’s murderous regime in Chile as a “gang of murderers”, a historically accurate statement. The court’s chilling justification: if police had not intervened to confiscate the banner, “the correct bilateral relations between Germany and Chile would have suffered to a not insignificant degree”. In 2003, the president of police in Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin, wanted to use to law to prosecute an Iraq Waropponent who installed a “Bush Fuck You” placard at his home in an upscale neighborhood close to the German capital. Bush hadn’t complained (so no prosecution went ahead), but well-to-do neighbors had not taken to the sign favorably. The threat of prosecution no doubt sent a chill down the war opponent’s spine, and put a smile on their face

Despite this, Boehmerman’s case also shows how Germany’s conversation about free speech is broken. Much of the critical public reaction has not been to defend Boehmerman’s right, per se, to engage in such satire, but rather has become an exercise in not-so productive group outrage against Article 103. Politicians have described the law as a “pre-democratic” remnant of an age where insulting kings was still seen as a major crime, highlighting that the law establishes much higher maximum penalties (5 years in jail) than the regular law against insults (one year in jail). The popular Focus Magazine prominently featured a bow-tie wearing constitutional law expert arguing that this violates the principle of equality before the law, making it incompatible with Germany’s Basic Law. The problem with this line of reasoning is that every moment spent discussing this redundant law is one not spent discussing the wider host of censorious, unnecessary libel laws that stifle free thought in Germany, including the very same Article 185 that could yet be used to prosecute Boehmermann. The Boehmerman case has already had a knock on effect, with a Berlin administrative court banning the reprinting of his poem for a planned demonstrationagainst “insulting goats” that free speech activists had intended to hold outside of the Turkish embassy, although the judges did not rule on the legality of his poem more widely.

Germany Anti-Insult and Libel Laws – Anti-Democratic and Stupid

Germany has a plethora of highly restrictive libel and anti-insult laws of the sort one would more expect to find in Putin’s Russia than Merkel’s supposedly tolerant Germany. Aside from the laws already mentioned, the rarely usedArticle 189 bans the “disparagement of the memory of the dead”, Article 188 establishes particularly high penalties for “smearing and defaming” a “person involved in political life” if the speech in question is connected to the person’s political activities and “makes their public work significantly harder”. Article 192 explicitly says that the truth of a statement does not preclude it from constituting an illegal, punishable form of expression if it is insulting in the context of the way the statement was made. Underlying these laws is the idea that people have “personality rights” (Persönlichkeitsrechte) that a democratic state is obliged to protect from being compromised by demeaning speech.

Much of this can be traced down to the haste and post-war compromise with which the Basic Law, (then Western-) Germany’s quasi-constitution was developed in the late 1940s after the fall of Hitler’s Nazi dictatorship. Article 5, its’ provision on free speech, reflects this perfectly. It states that everyone shall have a right to freedom of expression, information and art, without the existence of censorship, but then goes on to qualify this, making clear: “These rights shall find their limits in the provisions of general laws, in provisions for the protection of young persons, and in the right to personal honour”. Theodor Heuss, a deputy to the 1948 parliamentary council that drafted the Basic Law, later said Article 5’s limiting provisions were consciously vague and implied that the “right to personal honour” arose out of an egalitarian desire to ensure that the same protections against smears would not just be available to officials of the state (as had de facto been the case in Nazi Germany, where the dignity of dissidents and democrats had not been respected by the state), but to all people.

This ties in with the Basic Law’s wider rhetoric of the “inviolability of the dignity of man”, a vague and unspecific platitude that would no doubt have been acceptable to both socialists and conservatives in post-Hitler West Germany. The Basic Law was originally, as it itself stated, intended to be only a compromise placeholder until such a time as a reunified Germany could pass a new constitution. But, given that the Basic Law gradually became a powerful emotive symbol of a new, post-totalitarian sense of Germanness, there little chance of this happening, and Germans will remain stuck with its inadequate free speech protections.

But the historical lack of emphasis on true free speech still does not explain the reluctance of Germany’s current political, social and literary elites to
demand a long-overdue expansion of speech rights. An understanding of this must be found elsewhere. An opinion piece penned by the editor-in-chief of Berlin’s well-regarded, intellectual Berliner Zeitung exemplifies what many in Germany’s cultural elites think about the Boehmerman case. Peter Huth wrote “Merkel did everything right… Even if there is a guilty verdict, Boehmermann will easily be able to live with the fine”. It is unquestionably true that with a good (expensive) lawyer, waves of public support and a well-regarded professional background, no German TV presenter or big-league newspaper editor is likely to face jail or financially crippling fines for any insults he/she may throw at anyone. The almost certain knowledge that they themselves will never face such a predicament is exactly why many in Germany’s powerful cultural and political elites find it so difficult grasp the chilling, censoring effect Germany’s anti-insult laws can have on those less privileged financially, socially or professionally; Local bloggers, small town newspapers, court case defendants, dissident refugees and historical researchers who already live on the economic margins of society but are the lifeblood of public debate. To many of these people, even the threat of a time-consuming police investigation or state prosecution can be the determining factor in not pursuing a news story, not expressing their opinion or even not exercising their fundamental due process rights.

Far from the egalitarian impulse that supposedly led to the constitutional “right to personal honour”, in practice, Germany’s anti-insult laws give immense power to officials to threaten small-time critics and trouble-makers who hold inconvenient opinions with legal repercussions. In 2014, a local court in the Rhineland region of Germany imposed a 6 month jail sentence for “insults” on an elderly man who had spent years writing letters to officials complaining, allegedly in crude and sometimes sexist terms, of inefficiency, ineptitude and of alleged corruption. Meanwhile, In the Schwarzwald region, an unemployed man who was dependent on social assistance received a 3 month jail sentence for using an insulting word in a telephone conversation with a local government official by whom he was told that more paperwork was needed before a permit he had requested could be issued. Last year, Germany’s Constitutional Court overturned a guilty verdictissued by a local court under the anti-insults laws against a woman who encountered police while wearing a “fuck cps” sticker. The local court had characterized this as an expression impacting the “social worth of the affected persons in their official capacity and reducing it”. In the 1990s, the Constitutional Court famously overturned a similar conviction against someone who had displayed a banner saying in (bad) English “ a soldier is a murder [sic]”, although the decision appears to be partially based on the reasoning that ‘a soldier’ did not specify troops from any specific national army or regiment in particular. Nonetheless, a regional higher court found that shouting “ACAB” while pointing at an individual police officer is an illegal and specific insult.

In 2008, a small-time hotel operator who had been detained on charges of unlicensed commerce, was visited by a police inspector in jail who informed him that prosecutors had just obtained and fulfilled a search warrant for his private apartment. The hotel operator protested vigorously to the police
inspector. He said that his lawyer should have been present during the search, and called the state prosecutor who had requested the search warrant a “breaker of the law whose days in the judicial system are counted”. He was later investigated, prosecuted and convicted by a county court of “disparaging criticism” and “defamation” towards the state prosecutor for saying this, as well as of other charges unrelated to those comments, but an appeals court eventually overturned the verdict in 2011. Criminal charges of “smearing” (Verleumdung) were also used by the state to prosecute a victim of child sexual abuse who has forced to work in an illegal child brothel in the 1990s. Mandy K. had claimed in an interview with prosecutors investigating the case and publically, that that a senior judge had been among those visiting the brothel as a client. Her case sparked a national debate about allegations of judicial corruption as well as police attitudes to victims of sexual assault, and there is no record of her being convicted of the charges. But even being investigated by police and taken to court is a time-consuming, costly experience that discourages critical expression in the face of officialdom.

Germany’s libel laws also have an unfortunate history of stifling the discussion of vital political topics. One of contemporary Germany’s most prominent far-left politicians, Gregor Gysi, has, since the 1990s, faced allegations of having collaborated with communist Eastern Germany’s feared Stasi ‘state security’ agency to inform on his clients, some of whom were dissidents, while he was a solicitor in Eastern Germany prior to re-unification. He vehemently denies the allegations, which have never been proven, and became known as the “red law-suit monger” in 1990s over his successful efforts to sue those making such allegations for defamation. Despite the fact that a parliamentary committee of inquiry had deemed the allegations of informal collaboration with state security to be credible and had accused Gysi of being included in an effort to bring about the
“as-effective-as-possible suppression of the democratic opposition in the GDR [Eastern Germany]”, Gysi was able to use to the judicial system to obtain an
injunction under libel law banning former Eastern German dissident Freya Klier from repeating comments suggesting that Gysi had ‘not represented his clients but had instead spied on them and sought to control them together with his comrades’. Prestigious news-magazine Der Spiegel characterized the efforts to silence (in effect, if not necessarily intent) the debate using the judicial system as ultimately unsuccessful. But it also described the consequences of Gysi’s lawsuits for free expression at the time in no uncertain terms; “regional newspapers reacted in a scared manner, in some editors offices one preferred to think twice about whether one should report about Gysi and the Stasi- and then didn’t”.

Even something as removed from day-to-day politics as historical research has come under attack under the absurd Article 188. In 2000, a Bavarian court issued an injunction banning a newspaper from making claims in a local history article that a deceased World-War-Two-era local figure had been “War-criminal who was sentenced to death”. Reviewing the historical record, the court said that the deceased man had only been an “alleged war criminal”, not a “Nazi-criminal”, and that the death-sentence-carrying war crime conviction had been “only by Czech Courts in 1945”, whichaccording to the court hadn’t settled the matter of whether he was actually one. Penalties for contravention of the injunction were set at up to one month imprisonment or a not insubstantial 100000 German Marks fine. Other historical researchers have also found their work scrutinized by Article 188 complaints submitted by angry relatives of the long-dead, although usually with less success. In 2013, a Northern German court ruled that a historical case study calling the notorious First World War German colonial military commander Lettow-Vorbeck a war criminal in regards to his activities in South-West Africa at the time did not constitute a crime, because the historical study was constitutionally protected pursuant to freedom of science. Similarly, in the 1960s, a German appeals court over-turned a five month prison sentence
that had been imposed under Article 188 on a journalist who had written a historical piece questioning whether Nazi diplomat Ernst Von Rath, famously assassinated in 1938 in Paris, had been engaged in homosexual activities and had been killed in a sexual dispute. Such pointless legal action not only wastes court time, but is also a clear deterrent to research on important historical issues. If you are on a tight budget or timeline, and receive a legal threat from an incensed relative, wouldn’t it seem much easier to avoid all the legal time-wasting by leaving out that sentence about the war-crimes committed by their deceased ancestor?

Of course, when vague laws exist, is there nothing to stop them from being used counter to the way lawmakers intended. Modern German Neo-Nazis have developed considerable expertise in attempting to use anti-insult laws and libel complaints to hassle journalists and anti-racist campaigners, href="">a strategy they themselves called “penetrant legalism”. EvenHitler, prior to taking power in 1933, himself filed a vexatious libel lawsuit in 1930 against Karl Rabe,
the editor of the pro-democratic Munich Telegram newspaper. Rabe had been responsible for an article suggesting that Hitler had attempted to bully and threaten Crown-Prince Rupert of Bavaria in case he publically expressed criticism of a ballot measure Hitler has advocating for. Yes, that’s correct, a soon-to-be dictator commanding an army of thuggish, Sturm-Abteilung death squads had his thin skin offended by an editor who documented how he had acted like school-ground bully towards an ageing aristocrat. And the very democratic, judicial institutions he was trying to destroy humoured him by allowing him to bring his vexatious and censorious suit.

Meanwhile, Germany’s cultural and political elites love pointing the finger at supposed violations of free speech and press freedom elsewhere in the world, particularly in neighboring Poland. There, their criticisms of the current Law & Justice Party government were perceived to be so out-of-touch that they attracted furious condemnation even from one of the country’s main opposition leaders, the maverick Pawel Kukiz. He urged them to look “more closely at democracy in your own country”. Perhaps they should take his wise words to heart and start by throwing out Germany’s useless, repressive anti-insult laws. All of them.

2015: Another Bad Year for Blasphemers

Popehat is pleased to offer a second guest post by Sarah McLaughlin. Sarah works for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (though the opinions expressed here are her own) and is interested in free speech and civil liberties. You can follow her on Twitter at @sarahemclaugh.

At the conclusion of 2012 and 2013, Ken undertook annual surveys of the state of blasphemy laws, and their enforcement, around the world. I did the same for this year, while paying close attention to the way that individuals have also played a significant role in punishing people accused of blasphemy. From the horrific January 7 Charlie Hebdo attack and Saudi Arabia’s first flogging on January 9 of blogger Raif Badawi (who was found guilty of insulting Islam in 2014 and sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison), there were early signs that 2015 would be another year where blasphemy would be punished harshly by governments and vigilantes alike[1].

How Blasphemy Was Punished This Year

Of the many dark entries in this year’s review, at the forefront stands ISIS. It is perhaps unsurprising that ISIS’ penal code, published in late December of last year, promises a death sentence to anyone found guilty of blaspheming Islam, Allah, or Muhammad. Who knows how many people have been executed under it this year[2]?

Saudi Arabia—which threatened to sue Twitter users who compared its justice system to ISIS'[3]—dispenses harsh punishments to those accused of blaspheming Islam in a manner fairly similar to that of a certain militant jihadist group that shall remain nameless, demonstrating the conduct that can apparently be expected from countries on the UN Human Rights Council. While Raif Badawi’s flogging punishments were halted over the course of the year, his wife claims they will soon resume and he remains imprisoned. In February, a man was sentenced to death (likely beheading, as is the Saudi Arabian way) for cursing God and Muhammad and hitting a Koran with a shoe. A month later, an Indian man was arrested (in Saudi Arabia) for liking a post with “blasphemous content,” causing it to appear on his page. That he did not intend for it to do so is apparently irrelevant. Last month, artist and poet Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to death for apostasy, a charge apparently supported by the content of years-old poems and “the testimony of a few witnesses.” By the time Fayadh was sentenced, Saudi Arabia had already beheaded at least one hundred and fifty one people, many of whom been found guilty of nonviolent crimes including blasphemy, apostasy and, most often, drug offenses.

Like Saudi Arabia, Iran, on track to execute one thousand people this year, treats blasphemy as a serious crime—violators are usually charged with “spreading corruption on earth.” This fall, Iranian courts decided that activist Soheil Arabi will spend 7 years in prison as punishment for “insulting the Prophet” on Facebook, and must prove his faith and knowledge of Islam in monthly meetings. This is actually an improvement over his earlier sentence: death.

Saman Naseem, a 17-year-old man scheduled to be executed in February after being tortured until he admitted to being guilty of “enmity against God” and “corruption on Earth,” was missing for months in early 2015, leading his family to believe Iran had gone through with a secret execution. In July, Amnesty International learned that Naseem had been granted a retrial, so there is hope that Naseem will be found innocent, or at least given a lighter sentence. However, given that it took over two years for Iran to reach that conclusion, there’s little reason to believe that Naseem will receive fairer treatment this time from a fundamentally unfair system.

Pakistan has seen a number of convictions and killings this year as well. In March, Liaquat Ali was sentenced to death by a Pakistani court for blasphemy and a month later an assistant professor who earned his doctorate under a scholar, Muhammad Shakil Auj, who was accused of—and assassinated for—blasphemy, was shot to death in what was likely an attack inspired by his connection to Auj. In August, three men were arrested for referring to a Christian pastor as “prophet” on a poster. Then in October, Bilal Husain, a man whose father reported him to police was given the death penalty for blasphemy too. Also in October, Asia Bibi, a Christian woman[4] on death row for supposedly insulting Muhammad was moved to solitary confinement over fears that she would be killed by guards, vigilantes, or other inmates. That same month, Christian faith healer Naveed John was arrested for the apparently blasphemous act of “having Islamic script on a sword he used to treat his clients.” Pakistan has received well-earned criticism over the past few months because of the ease with which its blasphemy laws can be used as a weapon “to settle petty disputes against Christians.”

Like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria is all too willing to execute supposed blasphemers. In June, a Nigerian court sentenced Muslim cleric Aminu Abdul Nyass and eight of his followers to death for statements about Muhammad. The sentencing was held in secret because crowds at the previous trial attempted to burn down the court—their second target after burning down Nyass’ home. A Nigerian governor seemingly attempted to justify the death sentence, saying: "The concern is mobs would take extrajudicial action if these convicts are for whatever reason released because they would certainly kill them when they see them on the streets."

Though he’s wrong that the government should give out the punishments the mob wants, but in a more orderly fashion, he’s right that mobs will often act against people who they believe have insulted their gods. In a particularly horrifying example from March, a crowd in Afghanistan attacked Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27-year-old woman they believed had burned the Koran. Specifically, they beat her, ran over her body with a car and dragged her down the street, stoned her, and then lit her on fire. She received essentially no help from the police during the attack. Only days after her death was it discovered that Malikzada had never even burned the Koran in the first place—she had insulted men selling amulets by calling them un-Islamic, and they retaliated by yelling to the crowd that she had burned the Koran.

Bangladesh, meanwhile, shows how common murders like Malikzada’s were this year. In February, Al Qaeda members “taught a lesson to blasphemers” by hacking atheist Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy to death with machetes. A little over a month later, Oyasiqur Rhaman, a satirical blogger who mocked fundamental Islam and had mourned Roy’s death by changing his Facebook picture to an image reading “I am Avijit,” met the same fate. He was hacked to death by three men who heard that Rhaman had “made some comments against Islam,” which they had never actually even seen. Then in May, a third atheist blogger, Ananta Bijoy Das, was also murdered by men with machetes. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for Das’ death as well. He had advocated for secularism on a blog called Free Mind, which had been moderated by Avijit Roy before his death. In August, Niloy Neel was the fourth Bangladeshi man to be hacked to death for his role as a secular blogger.

Roy, Rhaman, Das, and Neel were all on a widely-known list of secular bloggers created by groups pressuring Bangladesh to prosecute blasphemers more harshly. Bangladesh’s government was not content to let the machete-wielding murderers be the only villains in this story—after Neel’s murder the Inspector General of Police, while admitting that murder is wrong, actually asked that people report to the police secular blogs, whose contributors could face up to 14 years in prison, for “hurting religious sentiments.” What Bangladesh should do is eradicate its blasphemy laws and acknowledge that its treatment of blasphemy as a crime worthy of imprisonment encourages murderers targeting those who offend them. Instead, the Bangladeshi police have reaffirmed the notion that authority figures should violently censor speech that insults their constituents’ gods. I can hardly think of anything less safe for Bangladeshi bloggers than a public record of police investigations into their criticism of religion.

Threats and violence against blasphemers were not contained to the countries listed above. Three men were convicted under Myanmar’s blasphemy law and sentenced to 2 and a half years in prison in March for insulting Buddhism by publishing a flyer showing Buddha wearing headphones to promote their bar. Amos Yee Pang Sang, a 16-year-old blogger in Singapore was sentenced to a 4 week prison term in July for insulting Christianity, and he “admitted to his guilt and promised not to reoffend, as he realised his actions were against the law and could disrupt social harmony” after he was required to go to counseling. An executive at a Four Seasons hotel in Indonesia is facing blasphemy charges and up to five years in prison because she allowed a gay couple to hold a Hindu ceremony at her hotel. And an Indonesian footwear company is being sued solely because the word “Allah” is printed on sandals they produced, which they’ve promised to destroy. In October, a five year prison sentence against TV personality Islam El-Behery for “contempt of religion” was upheld by Egypt. In August, two men in India murdered professor M.M. Kalburgi, who was likely targeted for his criticism of idol worship. A few weeks ago, Indian director Pan Nalin received death threats because of the blasphemous content in his newest film, and took calls warning him: “We will make sure you go Charlie Hebdo way.” Last month Kuwaiti blogger and teacher Sara Al-Drees was arrested for “Insulting the Prophet” on Twitter, and could face up to ten years in prison doing hard labor. Events of a blasphemous nature faced threats and violence as well—in February three people were wounded and one man was killed when a gunman[5] targeted Lars Vilks’ event in Denmark and a Muhammad cartoon contest with keynote speaker Geert Wilders in Texas was unsuccessfully attacked in May by two gunmen (one of the gunmen had claimed allegiance to ISIS.)

More Blasphemy Laws, More Problems

In addition to the many acts of violence committed against blasphemers this year, a few countries introduced or passed bills that will likely perpetuate that violence, or at least frighten dissidents into silence. Kuwait is considering an amendment to its 1959 Alien Residence Law, which would ban “any person convicted of contempt of religions or penalised for derision of Islam, Islamic beliefs or the Prophet’s (PBUH) companions or family members” in another country from entering Kuwait. In July, the United Arab Emirates President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan[6] decreed a law that could easily be used to target blasphemous speech. Some of the “anti-hate” law’s provisions:

  1. Criminalises any acts that stoke religious hatred
  2. Criminalises any act that insults religion through any form of expression, be it speech or the written word, books, pamphlets or online
  3. Punishes anyone for terming other religious groups or individuals as infidels, or unbelievers
  4. Provides a sound foundation for the environment of tolerance, broad-mindedness and acceptance in the UAE
  5. Aims to safeguard people regardless of their origin, beliefs or race, against acts that promote religious hate and intolerance
  6. Includes jail terms of six months to more than 10 years for those who break the law

Not to be outdone, Bahrain began drafting a bill in August that would ban “any hate or sectarian discourse that undermines national unity, differentiates between individuals or groups on the bases of religion, creed or sect and triggers conflict between individuals or groups.” New Zealand’s new Harmful Digital Communications Act says digital communications "should not denigrate an individual by reason of his or her colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.” Humanist groups have raised concerns about the law’s ability to target blasphemous speech, but New Zealand’s Justice Minister Amy Adams claimed "a person would have to do much more than simply post blasphemy to fall foul of the criminal offence in the Harmful Digital Communications Act." There’s plenty of evidence from this year alone that many people consider blasphemous statements to be “denigrations” of their religion, so Adams’ comments are poorly thought out at best[7].

Poland and Denmark both took incredibly disappointing stances this year by reaffirming the legality of their blasphemy laws. The International Humanist and Ethical Union reports that Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Vanessa Vega Saenz spoke at a UN Human Rights Council meeting in March and acknowledged that Denmark’s blasphemy law is rarely used but claimed it’s “‘legally important’ in that it gives the state the possibility to stop people burning bibles and Korans, and to punish those who do[8].” In October, a Constitutional Tribunal upheld Poland's blasphemy law that states “whoever offends religious feelings of other people by publicly insulting an object of religious cult or a place for public holding of religious ceremonies, is subject to a fine, restriction of liberty or loss of liberty for up to 2 years.” In the ruling, one of the justices said “religious criticism is acceptable, only if it’s devoid of abusive, insulting or degrading opinions” and the tribunal asserted the importance of “punish[ing] such offenses, because the public debate about religion must be conducted in a cultured and civilized manner.”

Some Rare Good News

There were a few brights spots this year, though. In March, Jordan withdrew its proposed Inter-Parliamentary Union resolution that sought to restrict speech that failed to show “respect for religions and religious symbols.” In response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, two Norway politicians pushed through a proposal in May that finally achieved the long-planned end of the country’s blasphemy law, arguing that its existence “underpins a perception that religious expressions and symbols are entitled to a special protection.” Two months later, Malta announced that it was in the process of weakening its blasphemy laws[9]. Iceland’s parliament, also motivated by Charlie Hebdo, repealed its 75 year old provision against blasphemy in July. And in October, Pakistan’s Supreme Court decided that suggesting revisions to Pakistan’s blasphemy law is not, in fact, a violation of the blasphemy law. Alarming as it is that this needed to be said, it’s still progress worth noting. It’s a minor, but important, step forward for free speech advocates demanding reform.

That Norway’s and Iceland’s blasphemy laws (like Denmark’s) were rarely, if ever, used is irrelevant—laws that could be used to punish expression often do a very good job of chilling the speech they’re intended to suppress even if they’re never exercised. And sometimes, as evidenced by the tragedies in Bangladesh and Afghanistan, blasphemy laws do worse than chill speech—their existence reinforces the idea that blasphemous speech is something that should be physically punished. It shouldn’t be, and we should be genuinely concerned about the prevalence of the desire, from governments and mobs, to inflict pain on people whose beliefs deviate from what their neighbors or leaders deem acceptable.

[1] This list probably does not contain every newsmaking blasphemy incident of 2015, but it illustrates the hostility with which religious dissent was met in the past year. I used essentially the same methodology as Ken did when he blogged about blasphemy in 2012, but I grouped the incidents differently (as you can see).

[2] These are just a few examples of ISIS’ brutality. You can easily find many more if you’re so inclined.

[3] But who among us wouldn’t threaten to sue someone willing to criticize us for doing very rational things like beheading people for not imaginary crimes like sorcery? Who are we to judge?

[4] And the only woman.

[5] His motives were not known but Vilks is a well known target for his cartoon depictions of Muhammad.

[6] A rule to live by: anyone that demands to be called “his highness” can probably be expected to “decree” terrible laws.

[7] For more poorly thought out comments, check out Keith Vaz’s “lol idk maybe” ideas on blasphemy laws in the UK.

[8] This is a fairly blunt way of saying that they like being able to chill speech.

[9] But the Justice and Culture Minister said that “the new amendments will also aim to safeguard social and racial minorities, since the law will not allow for the vilification of any minority work,” so this is still worth watching.




Scared of Sondheim: A Story About Offense

Popehat is pleased to welcome back Lisa McElroy, an associate professor of law at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, for another guest post. Her first novel, Called On, was just published by Quid Pro Books.

Ask any university professor in the country, and she’ll tell you that trigger warnings are a hot topic on her campus. That sounds good, right? Alerting students to a potentially sensitive or controversial issue before addressing it class? Oh, except that saying a topic is “hot” might connote something sexual; using the word “trigger” might call to mind gun violence; and issuing a “warning” is something that most professors fear with students these days, in this customer-service culture of education.

Ask any parent of a high school student, and she’ll tell you that schools see protecting students as an essential part of their mission. That sounds good, too, right? We need lockdown drills and secure buildings and assemblies on drugs and alcohol. Oh, but not conversations about the sensitive topics that lie in wait in books like The Color Purple or All’s Quiet on the Western Front – those might offend someone. Romeo and Juliet? Well, they were in love – except that they were actually engaging in statutory rape, and their families battled each other, and then there’s that whole suicide thing. Oedipus? Well, he had that mother hang-up – but maybe we shouldn’t talk about it, because that’s about sex and, OMG, incest. Let’s read The Mousetrap instead.

I’m both a university professor and the mother of high school students, and I’ve learned there’s at least one thing that both educational settings have in common – a small number of offended students or parents may control the conversation, taking it away from the majority of the school community that believes that debating controversial topics is the very essence of education. (And, yes, I know about Erika Christakis at Yale, and yes, I know that’s what got her unfairly shunned, and yes, I realize that I’m probably making the same point here, but not as well as she did.) But I have to speak out, because parents and kids who are afraid – of Sondheim, no less – are setting the agenda for our schools these days, just as so many did when Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Judy Blume’s Forever were removed from school library shelves.

This week, at my children’s top-notch suburban public high school, I had my first experience with a trigger warning for high school students. The issue? The spring musical.

Yeah, I know. These are high school kids. They’re cute and enthusiastic and creative. And they’re doing a musical! Disney made about a zillion bucks turning that concept into gold a decade or so ago.

So where’s the trigger?

In this case, it was the musical itself, Company, a lesser-known Stephen Sondheim work – you know, the dude who won a Pulitzer? The school picked the musical at the end of the spring semester last year. The kids prepared and auditioned a couple of weeks ago. When the cast list went up, the school halls were full of a whole bunch of rapturous mini-thespians in leg warmers.

Now, I’m going to admit that Company has some racy scenes. The male lead romances a lot of different women (notice that I avoided the “s” word (sex) and the “b” word (bed). Because, triggers.). Some of his friends smoke pot. One of his friends is an alcoholic who smokes tobacco cigarettes.

OK. So, would you let the kids do the play? Well, as the parents of the girl who was cast in the role of a woman who gets really, really high on stage and then acts really, really dumb, my husband and I answered “heck yes.”

Because, real life situations. Because, kids already cast. Because, statistics (about the “s” word and the “b” word and the “p” word (pot)) show that the kids already know about and even do this stuff. Because, Sondheim. Because, not High School Musical. Because, education. For the audience and the kids.

Yesterday, the kids were told that the show was being killed.

Except I don’t think they used the word “killed” with the kids. Because, you know, trigger.

And why? I know why, but I’m going to let you guess. Let’s just say that I’m not authorized to give out that information. You’re pretty smart. It has to do with another “p” word. But no more hints. Because the “p” word involved didn’t let other “p’s” have a voice. And that “p” is thus far anonymous and probably mostly so because the “p” doesn’t want other “p’s” to know that he or she is the one that made the ruckus. And the school had to deal with the offended “p.” Because, well, triggers.

But now I have a very disappointed daughter, and the school has a whole cast of kids who are being taught that if you get up in arms about something and say it offends you, you can shut down a whole class. Or get a professor who has offered a different perspective to resign. Or cancel the spring musical. Even when you have a totally enlightened musical director and the most awesomesauce principal on the planet.

The kids and the director are talking now about what show they’ll do instead. Schoolhouse Rock and Legally Blonde have been raised as possibilities. But I’m pretty sure that there’s someone out there who will think that “Conjunction Junction” is about “but” and “yet” getting it on (oooh, and “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here” – the subtext just screams “drug dealing”). And the bend and snap? We don’t want to send a message that girls should be crushing on boys, and we definitely do not want them to snap and grin – that’s just asking for trouble. That whole scene will have to go.

It will have to go, just like our kids’ exposure to stuff that’s real, like drugs and alcohol and sex and tough marriages and guns. And their chance to fictionally explore those things, to talk about them thoughtfully, and to seize the opportunity to educate. And, hey, their experience of a semester singing Sondheim.

Because what’s most important? Making sure no one’s offended.

Send in the clowns.

Lisa T. McElroy is an associate professor of law at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law. Her first novel, Called On, was just published by Quid Pro Books. She notes that she is Jewish, the high school fall play was A Christmas Carol, both her kids participated, and she did not say a word. Because, Dickens.

Turkish President Erdoğan’s Precious (Feelings)

Popehat is pleased to offer a guest post by Sarah McLaughlin. Sarah works for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (though the opinions expressed here are her own) and is interested in free speech and civil liberties. You can follow her on Twitter at @sarahemclaugh.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, I’m legally required to state1, is not now and never has been employed as a Gollum impersonator, is doing a great job supporting the argument that the amount of power a leader has at his disposal is inversely related to his ability to tolerate “insults” or dissent.

At a September press conference, Erdoğan’s spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin claimed “there is a vibrant environment of debate in Turkey,” and said that it’s “never possible to consider insulting the presidential office within freedom of expression.” Although that statement is completely laughable, it was not a joke—Turkey does seriously crack down on “insults” to President Erdoğan, who, I repeat, is not one of the River-folk and has at no point been accused of murdering the hobbit Déagol.

The most recent example of Erdoğan’s tendency to overreact to insults is… precious.2 Today's Zaman reports that a Turkish court has “demanded an expert examination to investigate Gollum's character to decide whether a comparison with him is an insult,” after Dr. Bilgin Ciftci, who has now been fired from Public Health Institution of Turkey, shared this meme:


Ciftci has already attended four hearings over this picture, and will have to suffer through another on February 12 because the judge admitted he hadn’t seen the films, and wasn’t sure if the comparison to The Lord of the Rings character Gollum constitutes an insult. To help him find answers to this very important question3, he put together “an expert panel, which will reportedly include two academics, two behavioural experts and an expert on cinema and television productions.” So in addition to deciding whether or not Ciftci will spend time in prison, potentially two years, a Turkish court will be responsible for taking a position on Gollum’s moral worth. Talk about government overreach.

If they were to ask for my opinion, which I note, they’re not4, I would tell them that, considering the fact that Erdoğan, unlike Gollum, doesn't have a magic ring’s influence as justification for the way he acts, Erdoğan should be grateful for the comparison. Gollum is a complex, tormented character whose struggle against himself elicits the reader’s pity, rather than hatred. Erdoğan is a president who throws tantrums because people tease him online. I would also tell them that a major difference between the two is that Gollum, although obsessed with and in love with the ring and the power it offered, hated himself for it. Although he has good cause to do so, Erdoğan, from what I can tell, doesn’t seem to share Gollum’s sense of self-loathing.
In short, it’s not Erdoğan who is insulted by this comparison—it’s Gollum.

You don’t have to look hard to find more stories like this. A hearing will be held this month to determine the guilt of two children, ages 12 and 13, who were charged with insulting the president after they were caught tearing down posters of Erdoğan in October. Today’s Zaman reports that they could face up to four years in a juvenile facility. That same month, Turkish police arrested a 14 year old boy for allegedly insulting Erdoğan on Facebook. He spent a night in jail and was released the next day. Also in October, police detained Today’s Zaman editor-in-chief Bulent Kenes under this “previously seldom-used law,” claiming his tweets constituted insults to Erdoğan, who, again, is not a small, slimy creature who bit off Frodo Baggins’ finger in a final attempt to regain ownership of the One Ring. Kenes pushed back, arguing that he was simply exercising his rights. That’s just a few reports from one month. These are not isolated incidents.

And it’s not just “insults” that can get you in trouble. Two columnists accused of “openly denigrating the religious values of a part of the population” and “openly inciting groups of the population to breed enmity and hatred towards one another" for reprinting Charlie Hebdo’s post-attack cover of Muhammad will face a hearing next month (they failed to show up at the last hearing) and could face up to 4.5 years in prison if found guilty. In June, Erdoğan threatened to have a reporter “jailed for life” for publishing footage of Turkey’s state intelligence agency giving weapons to Syrian rebels. Last year, a Turkish woman was arrested for tweeting a picture of herself standing on a Quran in red stilettos, after being reported to police by Melih Gokce5, the mayor of Ankara, who claimed that "no one has a right to insult our religion." Last month, The European Commission published a report on human rights in Turkey, noting the “serious backsliding” on freedom of expression in the last two years; “Ongoing and new criminal cases against journalists, writers or social media users, intimidation of journalists and media outlets as well as the authorities' actions curtailing freedom of media are of considerable concern.”

It doesn’t really matter what kind of character Gollum is. The bigger issue here is the fact that innocent people could spend years in jail because they incurred the wrath of a very sensitive president. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Erdoğan has decided to spend his time using his country’s courts and police force as weapons against anyone, including teenagers, willing to voice even the mildest criticism against him. He deserves all the insults he gets.

Lisa McElroy On Books and Thankfulness

Popehat is pleased to welcome a guest post from Lisa McElroy, an associate professor of law at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law. Her first novel, Called On, was just published by Quid Pro Books.

Several years ago, my father forwarded me an email he thought seemed suspicious. “Do you think this is a scam?” he asked. The email was from an elderly woman in Miami Beach, Florida, who had retired from teaching and was moving into an assisted living situation. She was clearing out her belongings, and she had come across some books she’d almost forgotten.

Fifty years before, this teacher had taken over her classroom from a young woman who was leaving to be married. On her first day, she had looked in the room’s supply closet, where she found a pile of books, most of them inscribed from a father to his daughter. Thinking they seemed special and that the departed teacher might want them someday, she took them home.

As these things go, the books lay forgotten, and by the time she found the young bride, it was through her obituary. My grandmother had died at the age of 87, leaving her son and several grandchildren. The retired teacher, a new internet aficionado, sent my father an email. “Would you like these books?” she asked. And my father, having lived 65 or so years himself in a world that had become more and more suspect and unreliable and scary, was worried that he was being taken for a ride.

As we head into the holiday season, we’re often asked what we’re grateful for, what would be a true gift. As my father recognized when he worried about scammers, the world, while more advanced, is also scarier and sadder in many ways than it was back when my grandmother and her successor were teaching school. I’ve been searching the internet, just as the retired teacher did, but for something different. As I sit around the Thanksgiving table next week with my parents (now in their 70s) and my husband and my teen daughters, I know I’m going to need to smile and tell them all just what makes me feel thankful. But in a year that has been about anything but peace, I’ve been looking for something concrete to hang my “thankful” hat on.

And so I began thinking about my grandmother, and books, and that retired teacher in Miami Beach.
My grandmother was a woman of style, a dedicated learner, and a lifelong reader (and crossword puzzle cheater, but don’t get me started on that). My most vivid childhood memories of her are of sitting in her living room, sometimes on the parquet floor, sometimes on the piano bench, sometimes on her brocade couch, reading some new book we’d checked out from the library. Although I lived a six-hour drive from my grandmother, she knew the librarians at her local branch well enough to talk her way into getting a borrower’s card for me; after an ice cream sundae or a trip to see the giant dolls at the department store, we’d always end up back at the same circulation desk in the same brick building, watching the librarian stamp in ink the due date for some new adventure bound up as a book.

The best part about reading with my grandmother was reading together. I don’t mean that she read aloud to me – from the age of four or so, I was determined to read on my own (I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was about eight, but that reading thing was way more necessary in my book). But we’d read together, there in her living room, my grandmother with her new mystery thriller, me with my children’s classic on which she insisted. And looking back, what I’m most grateful for in my relationship with my grandmother was that true gift she gave me: a love of books.

There was one book in particular that we both loved: Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Although Francie, the protagonist, lived an underprivileged Brooklyn life, and I lived in a well-to-do Texas town, there was just something about Francie that resonated for me. I wanted to be gritty, like she was, determined to do something with my life. I wanted her powers of observation, to notice the smells of baking bread and the splashes of puddles on the sidewalk. And more than anything, I wanted Francie to be understood for her love of books, even in a family that wasn’t very readerly, the way I wanted to be understood and my passion nurtured – as it was by my grandmother.

Thirty-five years later, one night, when my husband was away for work, I found myself lying in my king-sized bed, reading a book. There’s nothing remarkable about that – my children know that, if they can’t find mom, check the bedroom and see if she’s absorbed in her reading so she can’t hear you call out. But what was special about this winter evening was that my two daughters, ages 6 and 8, were lying next to me, each with her own book. We were mostly quiet, absorbed in our own stories, but every so often, one of us would say, “Listen to this!” and we’d read out a description or a joke or a pithy line. And then we’d quiet again. Eventually, they fell asleep, there in the big bed, their books in hand.

These days, as teenagers, my girls have lots of interests, and I can’t remember the last time we all piled into the big bed and read books together. My older daughter now looks at the stars and imagines flying among them, but my younger daughter still looks down, at books in her lap, at the pages she turns. She reads because she cares about words, loves how they come together into sentences and paragraphs and entire chapters of plot and character and nuance. Last week, she asked me for a suggestion for a book to read. I thought of my grandmother, and I said, “How about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?”

A few days later, a package arrived from a used book seller. My daughter disappeared into her room, tattered book in hand. For the next few days, she didn’t talk much. She’d get her backpack ready for school or look up if I told her it was time for dinner, but, mostly, she kept her eyes focused down, on paperback pages that told a story of a poor girl in Brooklyn in the 1910s and 20s.
Yesterday, she came downstairs. “I finished it!” she said. I smiled. “Yeah?” I answered. “It has always been one of my favorites.” “Well,” she said, “It’s my absolute favorite. Every sentence is a delicious treat.” A delicious treat. Exactly. A treat that we can devour again and again, from different perspectives and at different times in life, with different people who are important in our lives. Those varied possibilities are so absolutely delicious.

And so I found it, my list of things to be grateful for, the gift I need above all. I am grateful for my grandmother, who took me to the library every visit; I am grateful for my daughter, whose enthusiasm about books fills every room; I am grateful to the retired teacher in Miami Beach, who somehow knew that my grandmother and her family would treasure those books.

And I am grateful for books. During this difficult year, they’ve given me a place to escape. They’ve given me a place to belong. And they’ve helped me see that, whether in the dirty streets of 1920s Brooklyn or the suburbs of 2015 Philadelphia, a tree will always grow.

Roosh V's "Reaxxian" Website Kicks Off Exciting Era Of Gaming Ethics And Innovation

[PR NEWSWIRE: IRC CHANNEL "CHATEAU ROISSY"] The worldwide computer gaming community reacted with excitement this week at news that gender relations expert Daryush Valizadeh has launched "Reaxxian," a bold new online platform for game journalism.

Valizadeh, best known by his scholarly pen name  "Roosh V.", built a global publishing empire with philosophical works including the best-selling "Bang Estonia: How To Sleep With Estonian Women In Estonia." He is both the financial backer and editor-in-chief of Reaxxian, which aims to combine the gender-equity social-ethical ontological-literary activism that made his name with his devotion to cutting-edge games such as "Starcraft," "Oregon Trail," and "SimPlaymate." "I see this project as a way to overcome inequities and barriers to traditionally excluded groups," said Roosh. "I want to create a safe space for heterosexual males who play video games."

Roosh V. says he's prepared to invest substantial amounts of his Bang earnings to achieve that goal. "I have hired some of the most cogent and disciplined minds of, and they're coding like mad," Roosh explained. "This is a team of the iron-willed. Blue-pillers need not apply." Planned innovations include a commenting system codenamed TOGTFO, which promotes comments supporting masculinity by bombarding Twitter and Facebook with their content, and sends messages of affirmation, acceptance, and brotherhood to their authors. TOGTFO identifies preferred comments through a complex algorithm that assesses spelling, grammar, capitalization, and frequency of use of common dialetical terms including "cunt" and "panties." TOGTFO's media uploading application will make it easy for female readers to comply with Reaxxian's commenting policy.

Reaxxian also promises to be an innovator in trigger warnings. "As part of our safe space policy, we'll have customizable pop-ups that warn readers of potentially upsetting game content, like flat-chested female avatars, implied universal suffrage, pepper spray, or creepshaming," said Roosh. "When you think about it, the entire concept of 'wandering monsters' in computer role playing games is a form of creepshaming."

Reaxxian emphasizes that this project is not intended to denigrate women, the traditional consumers of video game content, but to promote acceptance of men. In the words of Reaxxian team leader "DieFagsDie," "Isn't it time we had a safe gaming space of our own, without outdated and judgmental socio-gender concepts such as 'stalking?'"

But Reaxxian's lofty goals are not limited to merely reviewing games. "We're going to crowdfund male-positive and heterosexual-affirming games too," confirmed a Reaxxian administrator who goes by the handle "StoP3nis3nvy." At launch Reaxxian unveiled an early version of "Alphas of Gor," a massively multiplayer online role-playing game set in the universe created by noted philosopher John Norman. Reaxxian's readers have eagerly stepped in as game-testers, and Reaxxian forums are busy with constructive criticism of the game's intricacies like "OMG who nerfed negging" and "lolconsent spell cool-down is too long" and "fm merchant npcs standoffish."

Concept art from early build of "Alpha Males of Gor" by Reaxxian Game Studios.

Concept art from early build of "Alphas of Gor" by Reaexxian Game Studios.

Roosh promises that Reaxxian will feature regular strategy guides for its promoted games. "Theodore Beale — Vox Day himself — is working on a newbie guide to selecting the best race during character creation," an enthused Roosh revealed. "Alpha Males of Gor" is not the only game Reaxxian is promoting; there is also talk of Kickstarting a first-person-shooter to be titled "Divorce Court," a remake of "Custer's Revenge," and a children's game under the working title, "Strawberry Shortcake Gets What She Deserves."

The timing of Reaxxian's launch is no coincidence; it will draw traffic from the game-industry controversy referred to as "GamerGate." Roosh joins other prominent thinkers like Adam Baldwin, Milo Yiannoppouos, and Pat Robertson who have recognized GamerGate as an opportunity to explore the important social and political issues raised by modern gaming.

"We're just very excited that another powerful voice has joined our call for ethics in journalism," said ardent GamerGate supporter and Reaxxian fan Kajira Lisa, speaking with the permission of her master, Chad of the Free City of Bakersfield.

Ken White and Patrick Non-White contributed to this article.

Guest Post: Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis On The Rule of Law


Today's guest author, Jim Ardis, is the Mayor of Peoria, Illinois.

Ladies and gentlemen, the rule of law is what separates us from animals and barbarians and people from Joliet. It is that rule of law that I now invoke to prevent so-called "satire" from being used to abuse my person and position.

By now you have heard that someone pretending to be me on Twitter has breached the peace by suggesting that I am some sort of corrupt, disturbed drug fiend. The statements attributed to me have been scandalous, personally hurtful, and textually ambiguous.

Let me clear some things up right now:

  • I am devoted to my loving family and have not "shacked up" in a motel with a so-called "notorious furry."  I do not visit motels because their low thread-count sheets make my skin chafe.  I have not been observed at any motels and if I had been it would have been to visit with community leaders about growing jobs in Peoria's business climate.  I had a soiled fox costume in my car because I was going to participate in a pantomime for children at a local cancer hospital.  My staff's nickname for me is "Swift," not "Yiff."
  • I have not hired any sex workers.  I have nothing against them, and feel our system should do a better job protecting them from harm and providing them with opportunities to better themselves and stop being such fucking liars about important people.
  • I do not have a "drug problem."  Drugs are a scourge of impoverished, powerless, and dark people everywhere.  I am fortunate to be affluent, to have friends, and to know many people in the criminal justice system.  Throughout my career I have strongly advocated that people, including myself, avoid the ruinous consequences of drugs.
  • Interns hallucinate and are prone to sudden unconsciousness.  It's a thing.  You can Google it.
  • I have not accepted cash in low denominations for political favors, as has been claimed.  That's ridiculous.  I am reliable and honest.  Look — I have a lapel pin!

People may believe that they can get away with mocking me or saying unpleasant things about me because of the "First Amendment."  They are mistaken.  Here in Peoria we have a system that respects the law — and respecting the law means respecting the Office of Mayor.  When I was victimized by satire — abused by someone with no regard to my right to self-esteem and dignity — my good friend Peoria Police Chief Steve Settingsgaard sprang into action. Could you get the police to devote substantial resources to investigating someone being making fun of you on the internet? Probably not — but frankly you don't carry the burdens of state that I do. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and all that.

With the help of Steve, your tax dollars, scores of police hours, and other resources, we were able to present search warrant applications. First we got a warrant for Twitter from Judge Kirk D. Schoenbein. Good old Kirk understood that "satire" is no excuse for disrespect here in Peoria. Then we went to Judge Lisa Wilson to force Comcast to cough up the subscriber information associated with the Twitter account. Lisa gets it too: who does this punk think he is, making fun of the mayor? Finally we went to Judge Kim Kelley with an application for a warrant to search this asshole's home, and to toss it for drugs while we were at it. And what do you know? They found drugs! Time for this little shit to face some real consequences.

You hear all the time about judges getting all bent out of shape about the First Amendment. So why did three judges issue warrants here? Well first of all, they all understood that as the Mayor of Peoria I am an important man, and my reputation is something that should be protected under the law. Second, I made it clear in the warrant application how just plain mean some of those "satirical" tweets were. Now, some eggheads out there might say that the warrant suggested, on its face, that the tweets were not meant to be taken seriously, and that there's no articulated basis to search for drugs in the warrant. You just remind those eggheads that a Mayor in a town like Peoria can get things done. I know people, and people know me, and when I want a warrant, then by God I get a warrant. I know all of these judges. This is exactly why you cultivate relationships, my friends. That kid in your fourth grade class eating paste and wetting himself during story time may seem worthless to you now, but you never know when he's going to wind up having the power of life and death over people because he's got an inoffensive name and photographs well.

In conclusion: this is a case of the system working the way it ought to. Someone disrespected me, a man of respect. The system turned around and bit him in the ass. That will teach you to think twice about mouthing off about people like me, won't it?

Guest Post: We Must Protect Dedicated Public Servants From Evil, By Arizona State Representative Michelle Ugenti


Hi, I'm Arizona State Representative Michelle Ugenti.

You may know me from my famed rapport with college students or my hilarious masturbation jokes during public proceedings. Today I want to thank the people at Popehat for letting me write a guest post about a subject that is near and dear to my heart: cruelty to respected public servants.

Now, I know that you regard me and my fellow legislators with the high regard and respect that is our natural due. You've seen all that public leaders have accomplished in places like Arizona with our commitment to educational excellence and electoral reform and vigorous but principled law enforcement.

But — and I know that this may surprise you — some people don't give people like me the deference to which we are entitled. Rather than looking to us for wise guidance, some people seem to see us as petty, deeply mediocre squabblers with a perverted appetite for telling complete strangers what to do in the course of amoral self-promotion.

Some of them — this is difficult for me to talk about, but I must go on — some of them mock us. Us. Their elected betters.

Now, we in the Arizona legislature have a lot on our plate, what with America being invaded by foreigners and all. But we've already made strides to put the disrespectful in their place through, for instance, innovative cyberbullying legislation. Our various law enforcement agencies have found their own effective methods or preventing lawless word-violence against them.

But it's not enough. It's just not, people. Recently I have been the victim of so-called "parody accounts" pretending to be me in a so-called "satirical" manner. Let's call this for what it is: political terrorism. Hate crime. Wanton intimidation of dedicated public officials. Hurtfulness. These people and their so-called defenders say that what they are doing is clearly parody, and that no reasonable person would be deceived into thinking that they are actually me. You think that's a good argument? Let me remind you — this is Arizona, populated by people who voted for me, some of them repeatedly. Fuck, these nerve-stapled droolers have voted for Joe Arpaio for 20 years, and he's basically an escaped Kubrick character. How's that "can't be taken literally" argument looking now, huh? Yeah, I thought so.

That's why I am proposing legislation that will make it a felony to create impersonation accounts on the internet to mock people like me — important people that should not be mocked. The law will make it a felony to impersonate someone online "with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten." And let's face it — my self-esteem has been harmed, and I've been intimidated from making handjob references during legislative proceedings. There oughta be a law, and now there will be.

You see what I did with that language in the bill? So-called "free speech" advocates will say that this law "chills speech" and is "vague" and "overbroad" — but all we have to do is say, "are you for fraud? are you for harming? Are you for threatening?" Of course, Arizona prosecutors will be able to determine what "harm" or "intimidate" means — and since this law comes in the wake of "parody" accounts harmfully making fun of me, I think they'll get the message about how to apply it, don't you?

The time has come to stop the disrespect. The time has come to stop the meanness. The time has come to stop the half-truths being spread about me, like how I have a crippling addiction to incontinence medication or how I deliberately swerve to run over squirrels or how I can't watch "Downfall" parodies without becoming uncomfortably aroused. YOU WILL RESPECT MY AUTHORITY. Or you will find out how we do things in Arizona.

Thanks for listening. Your papers, please.


We have a Facebook page, which like the gym, the kids, the dog, the cat, the taxes, the rent, and Mom (as she never ceases reminding us) we've neglected.

But we're considering reviving it.  The thought is, Facebook may be a good home for other things we've neglected, things that suffer under the weight of Ken's walls of text, things too delicate for Patrick's sarcasm, things that burn under David's glare. Things like this:

Popehat on Facebook

This will be a supplement to the blog, something like an Island of Misfit Toys, in which things that don't quite make it in will be given attention. It will not displace our Twitter feed, which is mostly devoted to announcing new posts, conversations with other twits, and the inevitable schizophrenic battles between Ken and Patrick, each of whom has access to the account and neither of whom pays attention to what the other has written.

Expect the painfully geeky. If you'd like to follow it, search for Popehat on Facebook, and you'll find us.

Two Years Of Griping, Goofing Off, And Smug Self-Satisfaction

Today marks Popehat's second birthday.  As mentioned on our "About" page, Popehat is really almost five years old, but we were driven underground by our own laziness for a time.  The site reemerged in this form, like a drunken phoenix from a flaming couch, on October 26, 2007.

Laziness remains a problem.  We'd intended to write a "thanks to our readers" post on our first anniversary, then promptly forgot to write it.  We meant to write some sort of retrospective as our thousandth post, but that got delegated to Patrick, who was going through one of his moods, and nothing happened.  Odds are that future milestones will be ignored.

Anyway, two years are twice as much as one year.  And a thousand posts is like a thousand dollars.  It's nice, sure, but it won't help you when your car is broken down on the side of the road because you never change the oil.  Two years, on the other hand, is about a year longer than some very good weblogs have lasted.  So we'll commemorate them.

First of all, we would like to thank our readers, and most especially our readers who comment.  In all sincerity, engaging with commenters is one of the most satisfying things about having a weblog.  The number of our "regulars" has grown over time, and we're very happy about that, in particular because we've been lucky enough to enjoy discussion with some very sharp people, rather than the mongoloids, morphodytes, troglodytes, and mopers who infest some sites we could name but won't.

It wouldn't be fair to name some commentariat and not others, but we will single out one, who has been with us from the beginning and remains with us today:  Alex C., or "Al," from a large city in southern California.  Thanks for your input and throughput Al.  We enjoy your quips, barbs, and humor.  Bless your pointed little head.

Second, while we've been fortunate enough to grow this site (in terms of traffic) from nothing to "small medium" size, we couldn't have done that without help from larger and older blogs.  We've been lucky enough to score links from GIGANTOR VERSUS MECHAGODZILLA VERSUS SHOGUN WARRIOR sized blogs from time to time, but their readers don't stay, and when they comment, well … meh.

But a couple of very large, though non-Japanese-robot-monster sized blogs have been very generous to us in terms of sending traffic, links, and virtual friends our way, so we'll mention them by name:  We'd like to thank the authors of Overlawyered, Patterico's Pontifications, Dispatches from TJICistan, and the League of Ordinary Gentlemen (a very different but most worthwhile group blog which has grown like a weed in the past year – we remember when we steered traffic their way) for their kind words, links, patronage, and readership.  And everyone else on our blogroll, especially the "law bloggers," who send us nice words and traffic even though this is not a law blog.

And now, finally, a selection of posts that we think might prove to be entertaining in some fashion:

The first post that wasn't a rerun from some other site or a meta post:

SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP. (Coincidentally, our standard/favorite advice, useful in nearly all situations)

Comments, We Get Comments!

While we enjoy comments, sometimes we enjoy them for the wrong reasons. Take, for example, the following:

One of our first widely read posts, in which we debate the meaning of certain constitutional amendments with the then-insurgent followers of Ron Paul.

Like all bloggers, we get spammers.  When we can find out who they are, we name them.  Occasionally that upsets them.

Sometimes it really upsets them.

And then again, sometimes comments really upset us.  Or some of us.

Other times comments are fun because a famous, or infamous, person shows up, like a writer/director/actor from a kids' show, or a notorious and violent white supremacist, or a jackass who got on a crowded aluminum tube of people while he had a dangerous contagious disease, and decided to sue over it.

Finally, few posts have drawn more irritated people than this one about an obscure lawsuit over a tattoo.

There's No Accounting For Taste

Why do some posts draw huge traffic over the years, and others languish in relative obscurity? It would be nice if we knew, because then we could write those sorts of posts more often. The truth is, though, that you are a fickle and unpredictable audience. One thing is clear: you like stories about outrageous lawsuits and legal threats. That's why two of our most highly trafficked posts were about a jackass suing a volunteer rescue organization and a lawyer threatening to sue a blogger for making fun of a hideously decorated house. A New York ophthalmologist with a mortal fear of peanuts was also quite popular. If you were looking at search engine traffic, our most read posts would be this essay on a PETA official willing her body to melodrama, and especially this quickie about Dora the Explorer's makeover. (We shudder to think how many innocent little girls, Google image searching for their friend Dora, have been corrupted.)

Arts And Letters

The bulk of our posts are about law, politics, and related matters. But we're no mere policy wonks. We're Rennaisance wonks. Readers have been treated to David's thoughtful takes on iconography and leadership and bawdiness in art, Ezra's excellent boardgame reviews and After Action Reports, and one of the first obituaries to appear on the web of a certain irascible Nobel laureate.

Who Knows What Evil Lurks?

One of the cool things about blogging is that you can play investigative reporter without deadlines or responsibility. You can spend weeks researching a post to fact-check some poor bastard at a newspaper without subject matter expertise who was writing on a deadline, or some other blogger who posted something off the cuff. It's a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. That doesn't mean that it's any less fun, as we found when we fact-checked the Los Angeles Times on a story about a woman arrested for misbehaving on an airplane, or multiple libertarian bloggers who held up an orchid smuggler as an example of over-criminalization, or multiple blogs breathlessly reporting that a juvenile was being held in some PATRIOT ACT dungeon. It's also fun to use the web to expose bad behavior, as we very recently saw when Patrick investigated the background of a litigious game company. It's even more fun to tweak the government, as we did with a kind assist from a reader in New Zealand (who we still can't name), becoming the first website to violate the order of a silly judge (who claims to be an expert in "cyber-law") barring the internet from publishing the names of two murder defendants.

We Laugh So We Won't Cry

It's not all law and small-l libertarianism around here. We're nothing if not whimsical. But the truth is that we're nowhere near as funny as our kids or complete strangers washing up on our shores.

Moreover, we've learned that humor must be used sparingly. Especially satire. Someone once said that all satire is a joke between the writer and the reader at the expense of a hypothetical third person who is too dumb to know that it's a joke. Except sometimes that third person is not hypothetical.

There's No Place Like Home

We generally try to maintain some level of privacy for ourselves, but Ezra is an exception.  His posts on San Francisco are personal and illuminating, showing sides of city that aren't famous, from crab-mascots to exotic pizza.  Our sole flirtation with the "big leagues" of blogging would not have been possible without Ezra's research and insights into one of the city's most unusual characters.

The Dead Walk!

As we've stated, this is not a law blog.  Of all of us, only Charles is actually an attorney.   At one time, we considered this a gaming blog.  Then Derrick vanished, leaving us without impetus and bereft of gaming insight.  It was a nice ride while it lasted, as evidenced by Derrick's epic two parter analyzing the 2008 elections as a real time strategy game.

Today, to the extent we have a "theme," that theme is whatever we want it to be.  Lately, that means we're a zombie blog. Lots and lots of zombies in fact.  And the bloggers who love them.

Your Friday Afternoon Has Been Missing For Eight Months

One of our early features was ways to waste your Friday afternoon, while you're watching the clock, when you should be working.  We regret the casualty, and will try to bring the feature back this week.  The problem is that while our Monday mornings are dull and dreary, our Friday afternoons are often busy.

Again, thanks for reading.  When the dead walk, we hope that they eat you last.