I went to a great swing dance camp in Stockholm at New Year, and when I came back to check my e-mail, I found that I could not log on to the computers at the University. I thought that there must have been some mix up with the date of my account's expiry. I'd sort it out the next week. I 'phoned up the computer department on the Monday, and was passed from person to person, until I was talking to the top guy. He had been expecting me.
We then had a fairly long talk, both in calm measured tones. He seemed a very reasonable man, but he chose his words very carefully, so as to remain neutral. He told me that my web-site had been the subject of some debate in the Computer Services Department, and had used up a lot of department time. Many people had been reading and discussing my piece "Why vegetarians should be force-fed with lard".
It turned out that the main reason they had suspended my account was to encourage me to contact them. They had the authority to remove my web-site entirely from their system, and had considered doing so, because they had received some complaints about this page. The man asked me whether I would be prepared to remove or alter the page in question. He quoted from a few pages of my site apparently from memory, so I knew he'd been reading it. I said that I would be prepared perhaps, but that I didn't see why I should unless I knew why. The complaints had all come in a short period and all about the same thing, so it seemed like an orchestrated campaign. He had clearly been doing his homework, because he also quoted from a few laws of the land, and from University regulations.
I did, despite his careful and legal choice of words, get the impression that his instinctive leaning was towards freedom of speech, although he gave no impression that he liked the essay. He said that some people in the department had said that they thought that it was offensive. He told me that he had concluded that the page was not against any law of the land (so far, no lawyers had been involved), but there were University regulations couched in such vague and all-encompassing language that he could decide to ban my web-site entirely. One regulation prohibited anything "intended to annoy" which covers about anything anyone could write. Anything scientific will annoy someone religious somewhere.
By his lack of response, he seemed to agree that those complaining about my site had, in my words, had a "sense of humour bypass". He agreed that the page was very clearly the opinion of one man, and not representative of any official stand taken by the University. I said to him that I could respond by writing an article on "the page they tried to ban!" The talk ended without any definite conclusion. My computer access was restored. He said he could send me the complaints, with their authors' names and addresses removed, so that I might read of what I was accused (he didn't).
I confess I whooped with delight immediately after putting down the receiver. I was reminded of what Zaphod Beeblebrox said when being fired at by guided missiles from the planet Magrathea: "Hey! This is terrific! We must really be onto something if they are trying to kill us!" I must have really hit the nail on the head if some veggies wanted me banned.
Time passed and nothing happened. I told my friends about it, and the universal opinion amongst them, including the vegetarians and vegans, was that it was a flagrant attempt by my enemies to stifle freedom of speech, and that the complainers were not admirable for their inability to see the humour in the page. I altered the home/title page of my site, adding in big magenta letters "Featuring the PAGE THEY TRIED TO BAN!" but then didn't upload it. One doesn't like to crow. I forgot about it.
I then received an e-mail from a stranger, tipping me off about a debate on the net about my page. She said that she found my veggie page funny, but that the debate was quite funny too. By a strange coincidence, I had actually found the page a day or two before, when typing my own name in Google out of curiosity. One of the top hits was this same debate. Amazingly enough, it was on a vegetarian dating site.
The site was one to which people seeking that special person sent in their vegetarian credentials, and it had a forum section for discussion. Someone had sent in this, with a link to my veggie page:
I have only read a couple of the paragraphs so far and its already got me FUMMING lol , but just wondered what you all thought of it
A few people had chimed in, saying such things as:
I too tried to read some of this article but found the reasoning extremely childish and ignorant, so I gave up. I think it's better and more productive to read positive stuff and less ignoramus trash.
One must remember why people were writing on the site: they were trying to attract the opposite sex. The debate had been started by a woman, and predictably, almost all of the lengthy responses were from men, who had given themselves such handles as Teddy Bear and Sensitive Guy. One man decided that action would impress the chicks, and took things far further, starting the campaign against me. He quoted his own e-mail to the University:
The following content hosted on your site has been brought to my attention:
There are a very large number of people in the vegetarian community who find this essay distasteful. The title for instance states 'force-feeding' vegetarians with a substance which would violate one of their core principles. This is deeply offensive and certainly language of this kind wouldn't be tolerated if it was applied to a person not eating animal products for religious reasons. It certainly seems to be way out of line with your university's acceptable use policy. I'm kindly requesting that you remove this content and that you also review this author's wider set of personal opinions held on your university servers at:
I trust that this material has not been hosted with your consent and that this oversight will be rectified forthwith.
Interestingly, he had likened vegetarianism to religion, which is exactly what I do in my essay. Disappointingly, he had failed to get past the title of the page, failed to spot the humour in it, and had tried to get all my opinions banned while he was at it. Annoyingly, he had never considered writing to me first, which surely would be the honourable first step. His first move was to write to those above me, which felt a bit like the little boy at school who asks another bigger boy to beat up a "friend". Note that he opens saying that there is a "very large number of people in the vegetarian community who find this essay distasteful". How, I wonder might he back this up? I doubt many people read my piece as a result of the forum. I wonder if there is a meat-eating community? How does he know how many found the article distasteful (he later says "deeply offensive")? He seems to be a self-appointed spokesman. Well, the chicks always want to date the leader of the revolution, I suppose.
So did it impress the chicks? Well, unsurprising perhaps, considering the context, yes:
That'll show him. A lot of it is pure rubbish represented as fact, so it really should be removed. Then he'll have even more reason to hate vegetarians! He probably needs to get more.
-Wrote one young lady. I was touched that she was wishing me more sex.
I actually meant "He probably needs to get OUT more", but he probably does need to get more as well.
Oh. Well, I can still hope that it was a Freudian gym-slip (oops).
The debate on the veggie site ran for five long pages, with a lot of repetition, so I share spare you all of it. I'm afraid you can't now have a look at it for yourself, because it is no longer there (but you may like to read an archived version of it here, or even take part in getting it reinstated). Letters were quoted to and from the Newcastle University's Postmaster. Those to him said that my page broke the rules prohibiting material on university computing equipment that was intended to annoy, inaccurate, endangered the reputation of the University, offensive, and/or defamatory.
The replies from the Postmaster pointed out that nothing I wrote was defamatory, since I did not direct any of my remarks against individuals. He ignored the threat implied to the University's reputation. He quoted section 43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986, to protect the freedom of speech of university staff:
43.-(1) Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.
He also added:
You should consider whether he deserves the publicity you and others are giving him by responding to his provocative views.
The letters went back and forth between the competing veggies and the beleaguered postmaster. Those sent to him said again and again that my piece was factually inaccurate, and yet mysteriously every single one of the outraged vegetarians forgot to give an example of an inaccuracy. Rather shockingly, one contributor suggested that people should continue the campaign by telephoning the poor Postmaster.
Another line of argument used against my page was that it advocated violence. Anyone who has actually read the page will know that this is untrue. The title is just an attention-grabbing and mildly amusing headline. The forum described me again and again as an angry man, venting violent rage.
One veggie did contribute his opinion that veggies should learn to take a joke. He wrote a long piece including:
If you feel it is unacceptable for this article to be published then you must also accept that what you are really saying is the author does not have the moral right to express these views.
Anyway, I actually like the part in it where it says that men who are vegetarians will become more attractive to women and probably only do it for this purpose anyway. So one at a time ladies, form an orderly queue...
So there's hope yet, although this writer was also one who claimed that my facts were demonstrably wrong, without mentioning what any of these inaccuracies were.
There were calls for organising a newspaper campaign, as well as trying other University departments, but this posturing came to nothing. Another contributor calling himself "Irrational Man" waded in on my side, likening the attempt to ban my page to the Danish flag-burning fury of many Moslems who were in the news at the time for their reaction to the publishing of some cartoons in foreign newspapers, some of which depicted Mohammed the prophet. He was promptly mistaken for me. Actually, I'm fairly sure I know who he was: a friend of mine I'd mentioned the forum to. I had considered entering the debate myself, but this would have involved registering on the site as a vegetarian seeking a partner, and I thought that that was immoral.
One woman, wrote the following:
What a pillock! I dont mind the entry existing on the net, freedom of speech and all that. (If I expect to be allowed to yell outside oxfords lab then he has to be allowed to air his views too.)
Ive sent him an email countering all his points, if I get a reply from him I'll post it here.
Oddly, her contribution was at first attributed to a name, but later the forum attributed it to "Anon". I don't know for certain that I ever got this e-mail, but a fair few days later I did get one from a woman using a different name which offered counter-arguments to my article, and we corresponded for a while in very civil language and I think ended on good terms. I have three times before had e-mail debates with vegetarian strangers about my veggie page, and each time we parted on good terms (one even went so far as to call me a "wonderful person", and I quit while I was ahead). I am more than willing to alter my web-site in response to e-mails I receive, and have done so several times, including on my veggie page. The correspondence I received on this occasion, though it was in places well argued, failed to identify any factual errors on the page in question. One notable feature of her arguments was the use of words like supposed, ought, intended, should, each of which implies some divine will, such as in the phrase "we are not supposed to drink milk as adults". Supposed by whom? God? The writer?
It may interest readers that to my knowledge my veggie page has converted two (although I think one was close to conversion and looking for a trigger) people to meat eating, which is a grand total of two more than the number I ever expected.
I'll end with a some quotes from the forum, that I found amusing. They act as evidence that what I say on my web-page is accurate.
From one writer:
Yes there are some funny jokes about all kinds of things but I really don't think his posting is deliberately supposed to be funny; I think it's an expression of rage. Maybe he had a veggie girlfriend who broke up with him or something?
And from the personal profile of the chief contributor, in the section called:
For me the benefits of being vegan/vegetarian are...
His first two words are:
And he finishes with:
It makes me feel good being part of this exclusive club.
It is nice to be right.
And there you might think the story ends, but you would be very wrong. Next, I was banned, and this set off a series of events involving articles in the press, appearances on television, notoriety on the web, and the discovery of how many nice people there are in the world. Read about it all here.