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This page provides occasional items, linked to the original articles, as we attempt to keep up with the rapidly changing situation on civil liberties.
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Glasgow anti-scientology protestors told to bin “cult” signs

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:35 pm on 24 May, 2008.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics.
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Details at my personal blog.

Court summons for describing Scientology as a cult

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:16 pm on 21 May, 2008.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics.
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From the Register:

His sign read: “Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult.”

Within five minutes of arriving, the teenager was approached by a female police officer and told he was not allowed to use the word “cult” to describe Scientology, and that the Inspector in charge would make a decision. Soon afterwards officers again approached, read Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and handed him this notice.

The Act makes it an offence to display “any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby”.

In response, the teenager quoted back a High Court judgement from 1984. Justice Latey repeatedly said in a family division case that Scientology was a “cult” - one that was “immoral”, “socially obnoxious”, “corrupt”, “sinister” and “dangerous”. The full judgement is here.

The City of London police again approached the protestor 30 minutes later to serve notice of a court summons, and to confiscate the sign.

And:

City of London Police gave us this statement:

“City of London police had received complaints about demonstrators using the words ‘cult’ and ‘Scientology kills’ during protests against the Church of Scientology on Saturday 10 May.

Following advice from the Crown Prosecution Service some demonstrators were warned verbally and in writing that their signs breached section five of the Public Order Act 1986.

One demonstrator, a juvenile, continued to display a placard despite police warnings and was reported for an offence under section five. A file on the case will be sent to the CPS.”

This case should be thrown out. The Church of Scientology may not like being described as a cult but that is exactly what they are.

Why the National Identity Scheme threatens liberty and privacy: Updated briefing document.

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:00 pm on 24 February, 2008.
Categories political liberties.
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I’ve updated the briefing document on the National Identity Scheme, to include a new section summarising why I believe the NIS threatens both individual liberty and privacy.

I’ve also tweaked sections related to the status of the scheme, to include information about the recently leaked Home Office document that suggested a change of plans is in the offing.

Roundup: Freedom of speech

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:23 pm on 9 February, 2008.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics, US politics.
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Now for another round-up, this time on freedom of speech related stories of which there have been a fair number in recent months.

  • Back in October, the Pub Philosopher pointed out how Britain’s new religious hatred law is beginning to bite:

    A number of people have already posted about Father John Hayes, the priest who was interviewed by police on suspicion of inciting racial hatred, after he expressed views about religious dress and radical Muslims in his parish newsletter. Esmerelda wondered whether, given that Father Hayes’s comments were made over a year ago, someone was taking advantage of the new Religious Hatred Act to make their complaint.

    This may give a clue to the response of the police. Usually, the police would look at the evidence in a complaint and then decide whether they thought a crime might have been committed before taking any further action. The problem is, you can’t do that with the Religious Hatred Act.

    Read Section 29B. It says:

    A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.

    And you can’t work out what someone’s intention was without talking to them.

    To establish whether Father Hayes had broken the law, the police had to judge whether he was a rabid Muslim-hater, hell bent on stirring up a religious war, or a harmless parish priest engaging in theological debate. Presumably, the senior officer who picked up this case decided that the only way this could be done was by sending two coppers to interview Father Hayes.

    As I said last year, this is one of the most worrying aspects of the new law. It is up to the authorities to decide what they think you meant. They can, if they choose, infer meanings from your words that had never occurred to you when you wrote or said them.

    The letter which led to Father Hayes being interviewed can be found here.

    This shows how laws that restrict what people can say can be used to intimidate someone via the mere threat of a prosecution, by someone who might simply dislike what the person said. This can have just as big an effect on free speech as any actual convictions brought under the such laws and such threats can be used without the speech concerned necessarily being proscribed by such laws.

  • Apparently, it is illegal for pub landlords to put up signs saying “FAGGOTS & MINCE NOT ON THE MENU”.
  • (more…)

The Serious Crime Act 2007 and mens rea

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:57 pm on 19 January, 2008.
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
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This post is a belated response to a comment left by “Les” in the comments on this article, who wrote:

Under S45, the prosecution has to show that you BELIEVED that the anticipated offenced WOULD occur and that you BELIEVED that your act WOULD assist or encourage its commission, thus establidhing[sic] Mens Rea.

Without S47, the judge could direct the jury to return a guilty verdict. With S47, if you demonstrate that your act was reasonable, the judge should direct the jury to return a not guilty verdict.

I do not agree that the conditions in S45 are necessarily sufficient to establish mens rea. I raise two counter points:

  • Firstly, why provide the defence in S47 if the conditions in S45 are sufficient to establish mens rea?
  • Secondly, consider the following. If I sell a knife to you there’s a risk you might use it to commit an offence. Of course knowing there is this small risk does not imply that I believe you will commit the crime and my selling a knife to you in the absence of any reason to believe you will commit a crime with it is unlikely to meet the conditions in S45.

    But suppose I sell knives to the general public. If I sell a large enough volume of knives it’s virtually guaranteed that one or more of them will be used to commit a crime. Therefore isn’t anyone selling knives to the public, on a scale large enough that its virtually guaranteed that some of the knives will be used in crime and who also realises that fact, in a position of (a) believing that offences will occur and (b) believing their actions will assist in their commission?

    Now of course section 47 can be used by anyone selling knifes to argue that their actions are reasonable — one would hope a court would agree that it’s unreasonable to prevent people from selling cooking utensils after all!

    But my point is that a person in this position has the burden of proof reversed. It should be the up to the prosecution to prove negligence or recklessness on the part of this knife seller, not the knife seller to prove his actions were reasonable. And in this case it seems to me that the conditions in S45 do not establish mens rea.

    Note that similar arguments to the above could be applied to selling cars, computers, hammers, tools, software or just about anything!

Happy 2008!

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:42 pm on 5 January, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, political liberties, British politics, the database state.
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So a new year is now upon us.

Looking back I think one of they key developments of 2007 in Britain has been the increased awareness of the dangers of the database state, in the wake of numerous stories about how various departments of the British government have lost personal data, had it stolen and/or seriously mishandled it (e.g. sending unencrypted CDs through the post). The government has shown, beyond reasonable doubt to many people, that they cannot be trusted with our personal data.

As a consequence recent opinion polls have been showing a majority of people are now opposed to the national identity scheme. Given that this scheme involves collecting and sharing personal data on a far wider scale than is done currently, it is only logical to expect even more scope for the loss/abuse of personal data arising from the scheme. This point now seems to have penetrated the public consciousness. This development could spell the end of the identity scheme and make it harder for the government to pursue other schemes that involve collecting and sharing vast amounts of personal data. I hope it does.

On the civil liberties front more generally, there are of course many more developments that need to be fought, such as the extension of pre-charge detention and other draconian measures. For the first time, it seems to me that the public are becoming aware of the dangers of what’s happening. Hopefully this will help to prevent further losses of liberty and further erosion of the rule of law.

Inchoate offences and freedom of speech

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:21 pm on 11 November, 2007.
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law, freedom of speech, British politics.
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As promised, I have produced a briefing document on the Serious Crime Act(SCA) 2007. Thus far, it contains sections on Serious Crime Prevention Orders (a topic I’ll return to in a future post) and Inchoate Offences.

Following up on a point made by commenter “Les” in his comment on the SCA, I argue that the inchoate offences represent a threat to freedom of speech. Under Part 2 of the SCA, it is an offence to do an act capable of encouraging or assisting an offence where:

  • you believe the offence will occur, and
  • you believe your act will encourage or assist the offence.

Note that the encouraged/assisted offence need not actually occur. It is a defence however to prove that your act was reasonable.

Anyone who praises someone for planning unauthorised demonstrations within 1km of Parliament is encouraging the commission of an offence!

Anyone who publicises details of an upcoming unauthorised demonstration in Parliament Square would also be assisting the commission of an offence by giving out information that will help people join in the unauthorised demonstration!

For more detail on this argument, see the discussion in the briefing document.

The Serious Crime Act 2007

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:53 pm on 5 November, 2007.
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
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Last week, the Serious Crime Bill gained Royal Assent to become the Serious Crime Act 2007.

Spy blog comments on this development:

We are especially worried about the effect of the inchoate offences on potential Government whistleblowers, and on bloggers and journalists, because of the listing of the Official Secrets Act and the Terrorism Act 2006 as relevant Acts under the Serious Crime Act 2007.

The supposed defence of “reasonableness”, means that, yet again, the burden of proof is reversed i.e. you as a defendant have to prove that your actions were somehow reasonable, rather than the prosecution having to prove the opposite, which runs counter to the normal way in which English justice works.

The dilemma which law abiding people who publish “dual use” technical information now face is similar to the issues about the amended Computer Misuse Act and dual hacking / security audit tools .

If you publish some information on a website, such as our Hints and tips for whistleblowers guide, which lists some legal technical tactics and techniques for preserving your or your sources anonymity, can you honestly say that they might not, at some time, some where, be abused by someone with criminal intent ?

Are such publishers then at risk of being arrested (and given the severity of the possible penalties, that means the whole panoply of legal harassment through DNA sampling, fingerprinting, photography, retention of data until your 100th birthday, seizure of computer equipment, communications traffic data and interception etc.) for “encouraging or assisting” ?

If you welcome information from Government whistleblowers, does that put you at risk of arrest for “encouraging or assiting” a possible offence under the Official Secrets Act ?

This could have a chilling effect on free speech and on political debate in the UK.

See also, Spy blog’s original comments on the bill made back in January 2007.

I intend to examine this legislation in more detail over a series of posts, as I build up a new briefing document on it.

Gordon Brown and civil liberties

Last week, at the University of Westminster, Gordon Brown gave us a speech on liberty and what it means for Britain. I have responded to this speech below. Quotations from the speech are indented.

Addressing these issues is a challenge for all who believe in liberty, regardless of political party. Men and women are Conservative or Labour, Liberal Democrat or of some other party - or of no political allegiance. But we are first of all citizens of our country with a shared history and a common destiny.

And I believe that together we can chart a better way forward. In particular, I believe that by applying our enduring ideals to new challenges we can start immediately to make changes in our constitution and laws to safeguard and extend the liberties of our citizens:

* respecting and extending freedom of assembly, new rights for the public expression of dissent;
* respecting freedom to organise and petition, new freedoms that guarantee the independence of non-governmental organisations;
* respecting freedoms for our press, the removal of barriers to investigative journalism;
* respecting the public right to know, new rights to access public information where previously it has been withheld;
* respecting privacy in the home, new rights against arbitrary intrusion;
* in a world of new technology, new rights to protect your private information;
* and respecting the need for freedom from arbitrary treatment, new provision for independent judicial scrutiny and open parliamentary oversight.

Note here how Mr Brown is talking about giving us “new” rights to express dissent, “new” protections of privacy and “new” rights against arbitrary intrusion. The main reason we need “new” protections is precisely because this government has trashed many of the old ones!

(more…)

Blogging licences!

[Hat tip: Tim Worstall at the Business]

Apparently, a law has been put forward in Italy that would require anyone running a blog or a website to register with the Communications Authority, obtain certificates and pay a tax.

Should this be succesfully introduced there, I wonder how long it will be before someone proposes it for the entire EU?

Mind you, at the “Hat Tip” link above, Tim Worstall suggests the introduction of such a law might just back fire…

If this actually happens I can tell you what will come next though. It’s not all that tough to write a script that will generate a blog for you, nor would it be to get another to fill in the relevant forms. The office doing the registration will be inundated with applications, millions upon millions of them. If this goes through then I think the Italian State is going to find out about Slashdot and what a few tens of thousands of enraged geeks can do to you.

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