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­­"We're having a religious related talk, at about 4 pm, do you wanna join?"

We all exchanged looks and shook our heads at the same time. "Sorry mate," one of us said, "we're not religious."

His face dropped for a second, but then his smile was back. "Right, right, sure thing! Sorry for bothering!"
No pushing; no trying to convince us; no telling us we should find God or faith. Respectfully backing down from our group. Key word: respect.

In this world burning with hatred, consumerism, emotional scarring, and unstable powers radiating more than a burnt out supernova, where do you find respect? You don't always find it walking down the street, or with peers. You tend to grasp it and then someone says something about your beliefs, your gender, your sexuality – or lack thereof – and it's gone.

Some time ago, the non-religious students from the London South Bank University’s Atheist Society put up a modified version of Michelangelo’s iconic “Creation of Adam”. The piece featured the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the “deity” of the eponymous Church. According to The Independent, the installation “came about as a humorous response to the teaching of intelligent design in American schools in 2005”. The poster was taken down for being “religiously offensive”.

Freedom of expression, right? Respect for other people’s beliefs, right? Well, no, it seems.
It is absolutely fine, even encouraged, to stick traditionally religious posters up. It’s alright to invite people to talks about religion. It’s alright for people to chastise their peers for engaging in sexual intercourse before marriage, and justify it with “it’s a sin, you will be punished”. It’s alright for people to sneer at a satirical representation of prophets – not even offensive, just a pamphlet of sorts. It’s okay to express yourself however you want.

Except it’s not; not when it is not in line with the standard religious practices. So, someone handing out religious texts and books, even when you explain you don’t want one – is acceptable. Photoshopping a satirical deity on the image of a fresco is condemnable and should be punished.

There is a shameless expression of double standards pummelling people everywhere. In an ever-shifting, adapting, struggling-to-be-kind world, how can we still rely so much on oppression? An allegedly welcoming city such as London should not have these problems.

Ideally, no place in the world should have this problem, but it is beyond unattainable. So, one would argue, let’s start with a smaller, ‘democratic’ part of the world. Let’s teach it, let’s nourish it and most of all, let’s reinforce it time and again. In theory, anyway. In practice, things are different. In practice, I would be sneered at for my lack of belief. I would be asked to bring forward tangible paperwork to prove evolution (I have been asked that before and laughed endlessly.)

If universities can’t provide a safe environment for their students to express beliefs, as well as themselves, what else have we got? Usually, a little after essential formative years, yet not fully moulded adults, this is a time to allow ourselves to shape our identities further. Oppressing us will do nothing else than function as a prime example of reverse psychology. Foucault phrases it as such: "Where there is power, there is resistance [...]”

Universities: allow your students to think and choose for themselves. Allow them to put the Flying Spaghetti Monster up. You allow them to put Jesus up. It’s a belief. It’s a conviction, and it’s a choice.

There has been great progress in allowing people to declare and stand by their gender, their sexuality, etc. Yes, religious issues go back in time. Yes, it is difficult to make a point in a country that is still ambiguous about its secularity. But we need to try.

Don’t call people out because they don’t believe in what you do. Equally, don’t pick people up on their beliefs. Stay out of it. In time, people will learn to stay out of your business as well.


Be fair. Weigh your choices, and in case of indecision, keep weighing. Both as a person and as an institution ran by people.

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By contributing writer, Jo Lazar, as part of our Year 2 Creative & Professional Writing degree Work Experience module.

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In a society where journalists and their sources are scrutinized for going against the current of propaganda and government control, how can we know there will be any truth left for us down the road? Free speech and freedom of the press. These are two things that may very well be fictional in the future. With the influential and life changing actions of Edward Snowden, Britain and the U.S have banded together to make the line between “terrorism” and “journalism” almost indistinguishable. The UK Terrorism Act of 2000, originally implemented to protect our country from radicals has now got the public and it’s governments guessing between journalists and terrorists. This act defines terrorism as an act or threat “designed to influence the government”, that “is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause” and "that would pose a “serious risk” to the health or safety of a section of the public." The UK government have persisted with the line that this risk is present with the disclosure of any “classified” documents. The act also states “the government” can mean a government of any country; in this incidence, namely the US. Subsequently, the British government has opened investigations into anyone who previously worked with Snowden, and used this as a pretext to enter the Guardian’s offices and demand the destruction of their Snowden-related hard drives. David Miranda, assisting journalist Glenn Greenwald (former Guardian worker), was travelling through Heathrow airport, and detained for nine hours under the Terrorism Act under schedule 7, back in August 2013. This compels all those who fall under it to tell all information they know and to pass on any documents they possess. Snowden passed on “thousands of files” to Miranda v(who since wrote many stories concerning the UK and US authorities and their surveillance systems.) These were systems that gave the UK and US full monitoring of it’s citizens through the company GCHQ), and he has since attempted to speak out against this gross misconduct through the UK legal system. However, he was rewarded with a blatant ignorance to any freedom of expression in the European convention on human rights. What does this mean for us?
If the UK legal system is now flexing it’s muscles to take away our information, force us to give up passwords, and destroy our documents, what does this mean for our sources? What does this mean for our “permitted” content? If those with truthful information are being stopped at our front door and 'frisked,' how do we know any information we do manage to receive hasn't already been tainted in order to protect the government’s view of “truth”? Many associates of Edward Snowden have been advised by their legal aids not to return to the United Kingdom, for fear of being stripped of all viable sources in a similar manner to David Miranda. Several of these people work for The Guardian. Even Jesselyn Radack, Snowden’s US legal advisor, was recently detained concerning Snowden and Julian Assange (another famed “whistle blower”). These detainments under schedule 7 are risking the people, their sources and their integrity. “Terrorism” is the conviction these truth-seekers must live with, now restricting their free movement across international borders. Guardian reporter Sarah Harrison lives in fear of this particular schedule, as it constricts her movements, her voice, and her ability to travel home. She states: “Schedule 7 is not really about catching terrorists, even in its own terms. The Miranda judgment states that it has, in this case, “constituted an indirect interference with press freedom” and is admittedly “capable, depending on the facts, of being deployed so as to interfere with journalistic freedom.” Officers can detain someone not because they suspect them of being involved in terrorist activities, but to see “if someone appears” to – even indirectly – be facilitating the bizarre definition of terrorism used in the act.” No longer are we protected, no longer do we receive these acts such as the Terrorism Act of 2000 for “national security”, no longer are the people the priority. These acts are being created and even twisted, among legal officials, to protect the government and their preaching laced with hypocrisy. Illegal activity is OK, as long as you’re a government with enough manpower to dehumanize those who will speak against you. We expect our governments to work for the best interest of their countries, but what country puts the distribution of the truth and hard facts into the same definitions that they consider to be “terrorist activity”? The most harm caused in connection to both Snowden and Assange has been caused by the UK and US governments trying to cover up the blatant violations of human rights they have been so easily committing. In a day and age that we believe freedom of speech and information to be at it’s best, we live shrouded in falsified fear of those who actually uphold their integrity as journalists, rather than their devotion to a botched system.

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By Catherine Watson, contributing writer, as part of our Year 2 Creative & Professional Writing degree Work Experience module.

Where We Are Now... come on a journey with UEL PEN...

Posted: Wednesday, 29 January 2014 by UEL pen in Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,
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So, at the request of our fellow Student PEN Centres & English PEN, and out of a need to document the fast trajectory we’ve all been on as a newly-formed student-led subgroup of English PEN, we at UEL PEN thought we’d take you all on a journey – one of inception till present day. Enjoy the ride…

Inception & Creation:

Created in May 2013 and launched in September, the University of East London English PEN Society has already proven to be full of promising social events. It was created by those of us on the Creative & Professional Writing (BA) Hons degree course who wished to inform students and tutors alike of the issues regarding freedom of speech and freedom to write worldwide. Because of our chosen field of study, the freedom to write and being able to express ourselves is a topic that is very important to us.

We started the society by running a fundraiser on Crowdfunder from June till August 2013, where we read 60 books between four of us in just 8 weeks - helped out by honorary member, Rachael Spencer from our course. We created a separate blog specifically to log the reviews we wrote in order to prove we’d read the listed books, and we successfully managed to raise our set target of £250. We also held a stall at our Fresher’s Fair in September, offering all sorts of different interactive activities; students could share their opinions on what “Freedom of Speech” meant to them, on cut-out speech bubbles (the idea for which we totally borrowed from Surrey PEN – thanks guys!) which we then took photos of and shared/tweeted. Students were also able to give a suggested donation of £2 and choose among our ‘lucky dip’ books, where we’d wrapped up the books and written a small summary on the wrapping – this was in order to redirect the focus to the stories instead of the authors ‘name,’ as well as offering an element of surprise and mystery to their purchase and support.



Emerald at our Fresher’s Week stall.


Events:

The money we raised from our fundraiser was used in part for our first event; our Launch Party in October. The remainder of the money, plus all profits earned that evening and for all events we have held and will hold thereafter, go directly to English PEN at the end of the academic year. We welcomed guest speaker Julia Ziemer from English PEN, who shared more information about what PEN do and how to get involved, and our feature act was Tim Atkins, our course tutor and accomplished poet, who performed a piece he’d written and had published in the English PEN anthology Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot. We also showed short films on the subject of free speech, supplied refreshments and snacks, and held a raffle at the end of the evening. We were supported by English PEN, UEL’s Vice-Chancellor John Joughin, University of East London’s Student Union, and Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail, who very generously donated a huge pile of books for our book raffle. UEL students were invited to read out their pieces on the subject of freedom of speech in our open mic section, and Mel Dok’s story on the riots in Turkey made such an impact on English PEN that they featured it on their website. At this event, largely due to the amazing marketing skills of Freyja, an honorary member who we said goodbye to at the end of last year when she moved to San Francisco, we welcomed almost 40 people.



Tim Atkins reading out his Pussy Riot piece at our launch event.

In November we held an awareness raising event for Pussy Riot, in light of the imprisonment of two of their main members, their appalling treatment in prison, and Nadia Tolokonnikova’s subsequent disappearance whilst in transit to a Siberian prison colony. We also welcomed new member into the fold; open mic organiser and events whizz Jack Pascoe. In this, we had another open mic section, and held a candlelit Empty Chair section where we read out some of Maria Alyokhina’s work (the other incarcerated member), in order to release her words into the world in her absence and in defiance of the censorship imposed on her. We also welcomed Grace Hetherington of English PEN, and we had approximately 20 attendees. We preceded the evening with a Letter Writing afternoon in which we invited students to come and write letters to the imprisoned band members, expressing their support for them.



Sam reading out Maria Alyokhina's work in the Empty Chair section at our November event.

After a restful and mince-pie filled Christmas break, the UEL English PEN Society has another event in the pipeline for February 20th, 2014 – an open mic and poetry performance evening in recognition of LGBT History Month, and in collaboration with the UEL LGBT Society. We’ll be raising awareness of the current situation in Russia, as well as people throughout history who have been imprisoned or murdered as a result of their pro-gay activism or writing. We're also very excited to be welcoming Feature Act Michelle Madsen, founder of the London branch of Hammer and Tongue, the UK's largest slam poetry network; and Guest Speaker Russell Sax, who is a current student on our writing MA: Imaginative Practice, reading pieces from his newly released book A Gay Man Walks Through Soho.

In March, we’ll be focusing on land rights for indigenous people and translation work – event page coming soon – please ‘like’ our Facebook page for invites and updates on this.



A Russian gay rights activist at a protest rally, in a police van. Sign says: “Love Beats Homophobia”


Other Developments:

We are very lucky to have been offered the chance to field out several volunteer roles within our society as one of the projects offered on our Level 2 work experience module. Helena Blakemore, course leader for the Creative & Professional Writing degree, has always been hugely supportive of what we do at UEL PEN, and we’re very thankful for this very exciting opportunity. We will be offering roles such as graphic design, marketing, events organisation and admin, on an academically marked module; hopefully helping to create work experience for University of East London students within our society and degree course. This is also fantastic chance to find and/or choose suitable candidates to hand the society over to in May, when Sam (President) and Mandy (Social Networking Queen), will both be graduating. We will miss the society very much!

We’re also attending several external workshops and events as a society that are relevant to human rights and freedom of expression; not just to meet and talk to new people, but being writers, to increase our own personal skills in writing for freedom. The last one we went to was run at IdeasTap HQ in Borough on Thursday 23rd January and attended by Sam and Emerald; the Keats House Blackout Poetry workshop, taught by Laila Sumpton and Stephanie Turner. It was fascinating to use a new form of poetry writing technique that we hadn’t attempted before, and we were asked to respond to artworks created for the organisation on a separate IdeasTap brief, based on the theme of freedom of speech. The work produced by everyone in this workshop was stunning, and we were very pleased we’d had the opportunity to attend.

On February 17th, we are attending She Grrrowls once more; this time to read out some of our own work on the theme of women’s rights and Anti-Valentines. Watch this space for updates, and catch the UEL PEN Twitter for random musings on just about everything free-speech related.

In the meantime, we are currently up to a staggering 70 members and supporters, but are always looking for more. If you’d like to get involved, and/or think you can help with any of the above-mentioned roles, please get in touch with a little bit about yourself; where your passions lie, what you think you’d like to do for us, or even just to say hello, on: uelenglishpen@gmail.com – we look forward to hearing from you.

Hope to see you at our next event! Till then, with love and hope.

UEL English PEN Society

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Co-authored by Sam Dodd & Mandy Lutman.

New event coming up!

Posted: Thursday, 23 January 2014 by Mandy in Labels: , , , , , ,
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20th February 2014
5pm-7pm
Student Union Lounge, Docklands Campus

A Open Mic and Performance Poetry night to raise awareness of imprisoned and executed gay rights activists, bloggers, journalists and writers.

Theme: LGBTI (but in the interests of freedom of speech and inclusion, other themes are welcome too!)

We'll have a very exciting Feature Act for you: Michelle Madsen, founder and host of Hammer and Tongue London, part of the UK’s largest slam poetry network!https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJwqERcUWOQ

OPEN MIC SLOTS: to book yours in advance, please email Jack on u0710321@uel.ac.uk - there are limited free-for-all spaces available, so do ensure you book in advance! And do tell us your act- whether it's poetry, prose extract, non-fiction, comedy or music - the more diverse the better, and all are welcome
Your piece must be no more than 2-5 minutes in length.

We'll also be screening a moving short film about an African LGBTI activist, and holding an Empty Chair section too, where we'll read out some pieces by imprisoned or executed activists and writers, in order to release their work into the world. Get ready to punch the air with passion at their beautiful words.

£2 entry fee: In return for this, you will receive a raffle ticket for our book raffle at the end of the evening. Prizes guaranteed.

This event comes only a few days before the Sochi Olympic Games closing ceremony in Russia. Since May 2012, when President Putin returned to office, he has introduced a series of new gagging laws that seriously threaten freedom of speech and LGBTI rights within Russia, and that have already led to many, many hate crimes, censorship and murders. In advance of our event, here is one of the small ways you can help: click on this link and sign up to PEN International's Thunderclap initiative to create a Twitter storm around Putin's account during the opening ceremony - they do all the hard work on your behalf: https://www.thunderclap.it/projects/8086-pen-sochi-olympics-campaign

Be sure to 'follow' @uelPEN and @LGBT_UEL for updates on Twitter, and have a ponder at UEL PEN's blog: http://uelenglishpen.blogspot.co.uk/

UEL English PEN Society event, in collaboration with UEL LGBT Society.


Check out our event on Facebook! See you there!