Freedom of speech roundup
Back in catch-up mode, this time a selection of stories regarding freedom of speech:
- Organise a petition, face a trial!
Peter Black AM, highlights the case of Swansea businessman Carl Lewis, who organised a petition to oppose a proposed traveller’s site in Swansea during a by-election campaign where he was standing as an independent candidate for Swansea council. The CRE has instructed lawyers to take action against Mr Lewis under Section 31 of the Race Relations Act which apparently makes it unlawful to bring pressure on someone to act in a discriminatory way, an extremely vague law which looks like a “catch-all” clause to me. Peter Black highlights just how disturbing this development is:
Whatever one’s views on this matter, the prosecution of local residents who are using legitimate and democratic means to bring their concerns to the attention of the local Council, will set a dangerous and unwelcome precedent. If for example the Council were to proceed with an official site and lodged a planning application would the CRE determine that anybody who objected to it, and any Councillor who spoke against it, were acting in breach of the Race Relations Act?
There are fundamental freedom of speech issues here that are not helped by the CRE’s own inconsistency. They are not for example prosecuting the Labour Party, who put out a leaflet in the by-election calling on people to vote for them so as to get rid of the gypsy site. Nor are they prosecuting the BNP who also put out dubious literature during the recent by-election.
Note that the right to raise a petition, as well as being an important component of any remotely democratic society, dates back in English and Welsh law (at least) to the 1689 Bill of Rights:
That it is the right of the subjects to petition the King, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal.
- Yes, I know I’ve been very slow on the uptake on the Alisher Usmanov story. For those not in the know, basically, Mr Usmanov didn’t like what some bloggers were writing about him, and instructed his lawyers to get the material removed resulting in a whole swathe of websites, many of which had not published any of the offending material, being shut down. End result, lots of bloggers have taken an interest in the story and rallied round, resulting in the material getting an even wider viewing than it would have done had no one made a fuss. See Chicken Yoghurt and Spy Blog for some summaries, plus check here and here for the offending material itself. Note that Craig Murray (one of the censored bloggers) has material critical of Usmanov in his book without facing any libel charges. Finally Mr. Eugenides sums up the problem succinctly:
And let’s be clear on this point; these blogs are down not because Usmanov has been libelled, but because he says he’s been libelled, and has a room full of paid monkeys sitting at typewriters firing off theatening letters to that effect.
I don’t give a shit about this character, or Arsenal FC (no offence to any Gooners out there); nor do I share all or even most of Tim Ireland or Craig Murray’s politics. But that’s far from the point. If you can be silenced for calling a businessman a crook, then you can be silenced for calling a politician a crook, too. Then it’s everyone’s problem.
- Shortly after he took over as PM,I covered reports that Gordon Brown might lift the exclusion zone against protesting within 1km of Parliament, after he’d made a speech where he’d talked about safeguarding and enhancing civil liberties. I’m not aware of the exclusion zone having been lifted yet, over 4 months into Gordon Brown’s Prime Ministership. Moreover, the police were recently refusing to allow a march organised by Stop the War to pass within 1 mile of Parliament and even claimed that no marches were allowed whilst Parliament was sitting, but eventually the march went ahead, though this may have been because of the high-profile of one of the marchers. At any rate, it looks like the police were trying to restrict this march but backed down due to the fuss, and there’s still no sign of the exclusion zone being lifted.
- What did this man do to deserve being tasered?!.
- Reuters reports that the EU has plans to try and block every website that posts bomb making instructions. In fact it’s worse than it sounds (surely any site on the chemistry of unstable compounds could be deemed to be “bomb-making” instructions?!), from the Reuters report:
Internet searches for bomb-making instructions should be blocked across the European Union, the bloc’s top security official said on Monday.
Internet providers should also prevent access to any site giving instructions on how to make a bomb, EU Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini said in an interview.
“I do intend to carry out a clear exploring exercise with the private sector … on how it is possible to use technology to prevent people from using or searching dangerous words like bomb, kill, genocide or terrorism,” Frattini told Reuters. (emphasis added)
This is crazy. The man wants to actually stop people using certain words in their articles or in search engines! Note that the Reuters report itself would fall foul of the ambitions attribute to Mr. Frattini here.
The Register reports a more recent speech by Mr. Frattini that mentions plans to make it an offence to post bomb-making recipes on the internet. This speech makes no mention of the blocking of websites that uses certain words, but we’ll probably have to wait until the formal proposals come forward before we see what is actually in the pipeline.
- Apparently, writing an email like this, got the American author suspended from his University course and told he would have to undergo a compulsory mental health evaluation if he was to be allowed to return.
- The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 was brought into force at the beginning of October. This Act made it an offence to incite religious hatred, where to fall foul of the law you’d need to use “threatening” language or behaviour and the prosecution would have to prove intent to foment hatred.
The problem here is not so much the precise definition of the offence, or even the possibility of someone being jailed when they criticise a religion, but rather it is the likely effect it will have on people prior to the point at which legal proceedings might be instigated, as the Pub Philosopher explains in an article posted after the bill passed:
People will register that the law has been passed and that there are now penalties for saying nasty things about Islam. Most will not read the small print and will decide that it is simply safer to keep quiet. Managers, unsure of the law, will flinch in the face of demands and accusations from Muslim staff who decide to test the limits of their new legal rights. Expect to see more cases like the ridiculous ban on pig toys in Dudley.
Even in its modified form, the Religious Hatred Bill will close down debate about religion and will restrict free speech. Last night’s government defeat may have preserved some of our legal freedom to criticise religions but the new law will create an atmosphere in which fewer people are prepared to take the risk.
For example, could a protest in which placards of the Danish cartoons were being waved be construed as “threatening” behaviour? What if some militant (and thus vocal) Muslims claimed they felt threatened by such a protest, finding it intimidating?
- Finally, it appears that British diplomats may face a life-time gag preventing them writing articles or letters drawing on the expertise they gather during their careers, even in retirement. As Brian Barder explains in the Telegraph:
Official secrets are protected by the Official Secrets Act, which rightly binds officials for life, both as government employees and after retirement.
The new rules go much further, banning any unauthorised expression of opinion not just by serving officers but also by retired diplomats for the rest of their lives, if such an expression “draws on, or appears to draw on, official information or experience gained in the course of official duties”.
This applies even if no breach of secrets is involved.
Had this been in force a few years ago, it could have prevented publication of the ground-breaking letter of 52 former ambassadors and other senior ex-diplomats constructively criticising the Government’s Middle East policies.
It would prevent ex-diplomats with unrivalled experience “gained in the course of their official duties” from writing articles or letters to the newspapers or giving media interviews on controversial foreign policy issues such as Iraq.
It would have closed down several stimulating and informative blogs and pre-empted many diplomatic memoirs.
Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, formerly a senior diplomat, would presumably have been prevented from serving as the Conservative spokesperson on security in the Lords. (emphasis added)