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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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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.

    Most recently, Indymedia have also been threatened by Usmanov/Schillings and Bloggerheads, one of the affected blogs, is keeping up with the affair here.

  • 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.
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    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)

Life imprisonment in Pakistan for “defiling a copy of the Koran”

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:41 pm on 29 July, 2007.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech.
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[Hat tip: Pub philosopher]

In Pakistan, Younous Sheikh, the author of a book called “Shaitan Maulvi” (”The Satanic Cleric”), has been sentenced to life imprisonment for “defiling a copy of the Koran”, under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. According to this report in the Gulf Times:

“The court has sent him into jail for life as he described the four Imams as Jews in his book,” public prosecutor Naimat Ali Randhawa said after the court in Karachi sentenced the man on Thursday.
The four Imams were the third generation interpreters of the religion after the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and their views on law are widely respected by Muslims, he said.
The writer also committed blasphemy by saying that stoning to death for adultery was not mentioned in the Qur’an, he added.

Gordon Brown and civil liberties — Parliament’s exclusion zone to be lifted?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:08 pm on 25 June, 2007.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics.
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That’s why I want a new constitutional settlement for Britain. And the principles of my reforms are these: Government giving more power to Parliament; both government and Parliament giving more power to the people; Parliament voting on all the major issues of our time including peace and war; civil liberties safeguarded and enhanced; devolution within a Union of nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – a Union that I believe in and will defend; local government strengthened with new powers – local communities empowered to hold those who make the decisions to account; and with community ownership of assets – greater power for more people to control their lives. (emphasis added)

The passage above is from Gordon Brown’s speech on his taking over as the leader of the Labour Party. The question about his statement about safeguarding civil liberties is whether he means it or not. After all, this government has engaged in the most systematic and sustained assault on civil liberties in modern times (e.g. see here for an albeit incomplete record of the attacks), and Gordon Brown has been in a position where he could have blocked much of it if he really wanted to.

However, if media reports are to be believed, he does seem willing to throw a bone to those concerned about civil liberties. The Sunday Times reports that he may be planning to lift the ban on spontaneous demonstrations within 1km of Parliament Square:

GORDON BROWN is to make a symbolic gesture to critics of the Iraq war by allowing antiwar protesters to demonstrate and march outside parliament.

This will reverse legislation introduced by Tony Blair two years ago to restrict the rights of people to camp on Parliament Square and install banners criticising the government.

This will be a welcome development if Brown is indeed planning this, and I will give Gordon credit for it if so. However when evaluating his claim to wish to safeguard civil liberties, this development would simply be one small step to restoring civil liberties to be balanced against the determined onslaught we’ve seen over the last decade, and various proposals that would continue that onslaught.

It is also worth remembering that this is the same Gordon Brown who said “at no point will our British traditions of supporting and defending civil liberties be put at risk” when describing plans to increase the amount of time terror suspects can be held without charge beyond the current 28 days. The very policy he’s considering would erode civil liberties (as did the increase from 7 to 28 days that we’ve already seen under this government), and the safeguards he talks about would at best simply blunt that erosion a bit.

David Davis to Gordon Brown: “Will you restore the freedoms we lost under Blair?”

Writing in the Independent, David Davis, the Tories’ Shadow Home Secretary states:

As Tony Blair reflects on his legacy, Taking Liberties, a film released on 8 June, documents how New Labour has undermined our ancient British freedoms over the past decade.

The Government says the rules of the game have changed: the terrorist threat has escalated and we must trade some freedom for our security. That assessment is superficial. New Labour has undermined our freedoms, but the most damning indictment is the liberty taken with our security in the process. Each shortcut the Government takes with our freedoms masks a shortcoming in its counter-terrorism strategy.

And:

In the present control order crisis, the Home Secretary blames the opposition, the courts and human rights for three terror suspects escaping. He complains he has one arm tied behind his back. The truth is he has been sitting on both hands.

More than a third of control order suspects are on the run. Reid’s latest buck-passing masks three mistakes, all his responsibility. Why did he not use all the existing powers available, including tagging, if these individuals were as “dangerous” as he says? Why, when they disappeared, did the Government wait two days to release their names, allowing them to flee the country through Labour’s lax border controls? And why is Reid suggesting we need extra pre-charge detention before exhausting all other avenues, including seeking a derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights, if necessary?

Talking(sic) Liberties charts Tony Blair’s legacy. The question is where does Gordon Brown stand in this debate. It is a sign of the leadership to come that he has said nothing on these issues.

Liberty and security are not tradable commodities. We cannot defend our freedoms by sacrificing them.

Taking Liberties, The Movie

Taking Liberties is a documentary film charting the erosion of civil liberties since 1997 has been produced and is due to be released in cinemas on June 8th. There’s also a book accompanying this. It’ll be interesting to see how much of mountain of the liberty eroding legislation this government has produced gets covered.

British government proposes raising school-leaving age to 18

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:47 pm on 8 April, 2007.
Categories political liberties, British politics.
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Catchup-mode again.

Back in March, the government proposed raising the school leaving age to 18, with sanctions such as £50 fines and ASBO-style “attendance orders”.

Since then, there has been critical commentary from the following bloggers that’s worth reading:

Fabian Tassano and others have since set up Educational Conscription, a blog dedicated to resisting this measure, suggesting that the new plans are simply a form of conscription and asking whether it is right that people considered old enough to (in no particular order) get married, join the army, have children and learn to drive (as 17 yr olds can) should be forced to stay on in education.

Cameron pledges to scrap the National Identity Register

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:47 pm on 26 March, 2007.
Categories political liberties.
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Update: The link to the video at Web Cameron had expired, so I’ve tracked down the new link and updated things here — the link below should now work again.

The Tories have already made promises related to scrapping the identity card scheme, e.g as reported earlier by this blog.

However, some semantic room had been left for e.g. abolishing the cards, but continuing with the national identity register, the most sinister part of the scheme, which could allow passports to morph gradually into an ID card scheme very similar to the one the government is proposing.

However David Cameron, on his weblog “Web Cameron”, has recently and unambiguously pledged to scrap the NIR itself:

The second question was, “David, when you scrap ID cards will you also scrap the underlying National Identity database?”

I can give you a straight answer. Yes - we will get rid of the database.

The database is going to cost a fortune to compile. Estimate something like £5bn over ten years I’ve heard from John Reid.

We think the National Identity card scheme is wrong, and the underlying database puts all the identity eggs into one basket, and we think it should go.

Clearly there is a need for the use of biometrics on passports for the future, and we can make that work, but we don’t believe in a compulsory national identity card scheme, and we think the national identity register- the money can be much better spent on other things and we’ve spoken about those in the past”

(Hat tip: UK Liberty)

How safe are Britons from laws aimed at foreigners in the face of such stupidity?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:17 pm on 1 March, 2007.
Categories political liberties.
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[Hat tip: Pickled Politics]

The Guardian recently reported on a case where a British citizen, born in Blackburn, was detained pending deportation because officials believed he was a foreign national:

Immigration officials assumed that Sabbir Ahmed, who speaks with a Lancashire accent, was Pakistani despite the fact that he was born in Blackburn and has a British passport. His parents come from India but also have British citizenship.

Mr Ahmed, 34, an accountancy student at the University of Leicester, had finished serving a two-month prison sentence for driving while disqualified when he was identified as a foreign national and held for deportation. His case followed a furore over the failure to deport foreign prisoners which cost home secretary Charles Clarke his job last summer.

Mr Ahmed said: “It was so frustrating, it just felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall. I was screaming my innocence to anyone who would listen and they were trying to deport me to a country where I’ve got no ties.”

He was asked to provide documents proving his nationality but was unable to do so because his passport was at his flat in east London and he could not leave Haslar detention centre in Gosport, Hampshire. He was only freed after campaigners from Haslar visitors’ group got access to his flat to recover his documents, and photocopies were shown to a judge at an appeal hearing against the deportation.

How stupid can those who rule over us be? All it would have taken is for someone to check Mr Ahmed’s flat to see if he had the passport.

Primer on the attacks on British liberty

David Mery, who commented on an earlier post, has produced a useful primer on the attacks on liberty in the UK.

The Great Repeal Act/Freedom Bill

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:07 pm on .
Categories political liberties.
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A good idea from the Liberal Democrats (Hat tip: Spy blog).

They’ve asked people to nominate legislation they think should be repealed and have a list of 10 pieces of legislation they’d repeal to start with, including the Civil Contingencies Act, Identity Cards Act, Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 (which gave us control orders…) and the exclusion zone around Parliament within which you need prior permission to organise a protest.

Repealing the legislation on the list would certainly be a good start at rolling back the assaults on British liberty we’ve seen over the past 10 to 15 years.

I’ve suggested they add the Sidelining and Undermining of ParliamentLegislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006.

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