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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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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.

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…)

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.

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.

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.
    advertisement

    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.

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