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Joined in spirit

Legal expert and STAY! fellow Rike Sinder is investigating how the right of assembly in Germany is being changed by virtual spaces

Freiburg, Feb 28, 2020

Joined in spirit

Photo: .shock/

Women study, do doctorates - and yet are represented far too rarely in top positions at the university. Many stop after completing a doctorate. The University of Freiburg’s bridging scholarships “STAY!” and “Come and STAY!” aim to support early-career women academics on their path into research. Dr. Rike Sinder is one of them. The Freiburg law specialist is a STAY! scholarship holder and is currently working on the issue of “virtual collective spaces.”

Virtual assembly: Via the Internet people can participate in demonstrations without being physically present at the venue. Photo: .shock/

Digitalization is changing the ways we get together - also by creating new “spaces.” There are now virtual spaces in which people can exchange views, get organized - and even protest. During the Arab Spring for instance, the revolution in Egypt got started via a Facebook group. In the youth climate change movement Fridays for Future, social media platforms also play a central role, well beyond the calls to take part in gatherings. Now, hybrid forms of meetings have started to take place. Gatherings which can be attended not only by those who are physically present, but also those who join the meeting via the internet.

One radical form of online protest started more than 20 years ago, when activists launched distributed-denial-of-service attacks. This means that a web page is bombarded with thousands of calls - from various different computer systems. The first prominent case of this in Germany was in 2001 and targeted Lufthansa AG, Sinder says. “The protesters’ blockade of access to the site aimed to convince the company not to take part in deportations of rejected asylum seekers.” The activists even sought to register their internet demonstration with the responsible civil authority. Unsuccessfully.

Competing interpretations

Such phenomena, Sinder says, “raise questions about traditional constitutional and democratic concepts.” Why? Because German law - up to now - does not recognize non-physical gatherings. Yet online meetings are not physical. Without physical presence, however, an “assembly” is not protected under article 8 of Germany’s Basic Law, which guarantees the right of assembly. At least, not as it is traditionally interpreted. Sinder says that digitalization gives rise to many questions regarding the nature of a gathering. How great must the physical presence be to constitute an assembly? What activities can even be described as assemblies under article 8? And which cannot?

Sinder is analyzing the issue in a different way from how a criminal lawyer would tackle it. “I’m interested in the conceptual idea behind it. I want to know where the right of assembly in the Basic Law comes from and what purpose if fulfills.” She has already picked up the trail: From the point of view of constitutional history, there are two different, competing approaches: The right of assembly is in between freedom of expression and the right of petition, between the French and Anglo-American traditions, Sinder says.

Twelve-month scholarship

Sinder has clearly defined her research project. She was able to do that thanks to the STAY! scholarship. Following her articled clerkship, which she completed in 2019, the mother of two was sure that she wanted to return to university. Research was the thing for her. How does the scholarship help? Above all, it gave her time. Time to think hard about her project. In the coming months, she will formulate it in detail and write an application so that she can apply for a habilitation scholarship. Sinder’s children are cared for during the day at kindergarten. And there is funding for that too: STAY! beneficiaries receive 300 euros additionally per child each month. Sinder says that is a great thing, because the scholarship is flexible and application procedures not too complex. She stresses that it is still unusual for women to combine motherhood with post-doctoral qualifications. She says the funding has made it easier for her to take that route.

Stephanie Streif 


Deadline for applications: 15 March 2020.

The bridging scholarships “STAY!” and “Come and STAY!” give women researchers at the University of Freiburg the space they need to write research or habilitation exposés, or to complete grant applications. The full scholarship is intended for outstanding women researchers who have completed their doctorates, usually within the past twelve months. The scholarship is paid for one year. The monthly payment is 1,800 euros; this sum increases by 300 euros per child per month. The Gender and Diversity office is accepting applications until 15 March 2020.

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