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Another Reason to Love the First Amendment

If the information in this article is correct, England’s got a real free speech problem. It may be false or distorted, of course; it comes from a fundamentalist group and they’ve got a long history of exaggerating and distorting reality in order to make themselves look like martyrs. But if this is true, it’s very bad:

Police in Lancashire have told the owner of a Christian café to stop displaying Bible texts on a video screen, because it breaches public order laws.

Officers attended the Salt & Light Coffee House on Layton Road, Blackpool, on Monday 19 September, following a complaint about “insulting” and “homophobic” material.


They apparently play DVDs in this cafe that cycle through all of the verses of the New Testament on the screen and that prompted a complaint.

He says the officers told him that displaying offensive or insulting words is a breach of Section 5 of the Public Order Act, and told him to stop displaying the Bible.

The Bible texts are displayed on a TV screen at the back of the café. Mr Murray uses a set of DVDs called the Watchword Bible.

The DVDs cycle through the whole of the New Testament verse by verse, with the words appearing on the screen. Mr Murray mutes the audio.

Section 5 of the Public Order Act prohibits the display of “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.” That’s incredibly, ridiculously broad. Almost anything can be considered insulting and cause “distress” to someone. Almost anything an atheist might say is considered insulting by many Christians, which means this is the last kind of law anyone should ever support.

And please don’t leave a comment accusing me of being provincial or believing in that idiotic idea of “American exceptionalism” because I support free speech and think every human being should be free to speak their mind no matter what their government says. You’ll only embarrass yourself. I am every bit as critical — more so, actually — when my own government violates that principle, as it does far too often.

Comments

  1. ManOutOfTime says

    Yes in England the King James is for gov’t-subsidized public (private) schools not privately-owned cafes.

  2. stevebowen says

    Hmmm…
    I can’t find any credible news site carrying this story, it is all over Christian and libertarian sites but no main stream media. This is the sort of thing that would make regional if not national news in the U.K. Another thing that’s suspicious is there is only one script cribbed everywhere and no editorial comment or analysis.
    I’m prepared to be proved wrong but I think there is substantially less to this than meets the eye.

  3. Brain Hertz says

    I’m with stevebowen. This sounds highly suspect to me…

    I’d just add one thing; based on my experience of living on both countries, and various laws and the 1st amendment notwithstanding, there really isn’t a whole lot of practical difference in terms of freedom of speech.

  4. roland72 says

    This does seem a bit odd and I would have thought the Daily Fail would be all over it… but just one thing – please can you stop calling the country “England”? The usual word is “Britain”. England ceased to exist as a legally separate country in 1707. And you will find yourself in especially hot water if you find yourself saying things like “Edinburgh, England”…

  5. seanjw says

    It is suspicious that this is restricted to Christian sites. However, I wouldn’t be surprised. We’ve seen plenty of cases in the UK where the police seem to have taken it upon themselves to interpret the law in the most extreme fashion possible and respond to any complaint by a member of the public. The utterly vile “family values” campaigner Lynette Burrows was questioned a few years ago by the police over something a bit bigotted she said on a radio programme, but she hadn’t been advocating violence or anything that could possibly concern the police.

    There seems to be some sort of pig-headed mentality amongst the police force, whereby they either have to spend their time harassing gay men and devoting vast resources to catching a few poor sods using public lavatories for sex (as was the case in the 80s) or they have to endlessly harass any Christian campaigner who dares mount an anti-gay protest (and seriously, the Christian fundamentalist movement in England is so small as to be laughable.)

    As much as you can lay the blame on the rather silly laws that have been introduced in the last few years that apparently grant people the right not to be offended or upset by anyone, this case and others like it, often never make it as far as court. It’s the police harassing people and stupidly asserting their authority. In many ways, it’s similar to the disgusting use of anti-stalking and anti-harassment laws to arrest protesters.

  6. seanjw says

    please can you stop calling the country “England”? The usual word is “Britain”. England ceased to exist as a legally separate country in 1707.

    Well, it is sort of correct. England and Wales have one legal system. Scotland has a separate legal system. Even though they’re part of the same unitary state and governed by the same parliament, Scottish courts are obliged to look at Scottish case law to interpret legislation.

  7. Brain Hertz says

    Perhaps not the best source, but it is a real newspaper.

    [cough]

    Err, well, for some interpretations of “real” and “newspaper”. I guess if you can line a bird cage with it, it must be a newspaper.

  8. eric says

    If British police are anything like ours, once someone called in a complaint they were probably obligated to stop by, inform the owner, and look around. That might be the seed of the report. Like Ed and others, I’m skeptical they would’ve taken any action.

  9. Infophile says

    @6: And you might equally piss off the Northern Irish if you ever refer to “Belfast, Britain.” But beyond that, England is in fact a country (one of four which together make up the United Kingdom), and Lancashire, the city mentioned in the story, is in fact in England. Nothing Ed said was wrong. If you want to be anal, at least wait until someone makes an actual mistake.

  10. Brain Hertz says

    … and Lancashire, the city mentioned in the story, is in fact in England.

    Lancashire is a county, not a city.

  11. matty1 says

    And you might equally piss off the Northern Irish if you ever refer to “Belfast, Britain.”

    Depends on which Northern Irish, some would be even more offended if you told them Belfast isn’t British.

    Back to the point, this has now made the BBC website which includes a quote from Lancashire Police so the story does seem to be genuine.

  12. laurentweppe says

    Yep, police came, but according to the BBC, while the police admited that the visit of officiers took place and issued an apology to the Café’s owner; they denied any attempt to force him to remove any material. So, it was indeed an exageration of a true story: no risk to see an evil atheistic dictatorship taking over in Britain.

  13. tacitus says

    If this case is real, then let’s not be too hasty in writing off freedom of speech in the UK (or, as has been rightly stated, England, since English law differs from Scottish and Irish law) just yet. As mentioned in the article, there was a previous case where the Lancashire police ended up having to pay compensation to a couple for overzealous prosecution regarding a free speech case. That could still happen in this case too.

    While it’s true that the free speech laws are not as absolute as they are in the USA, in practical every day terms, cases like this are rare enough that when they happen, they tend to garner enough public and press attention that the authorities are then pressured to back off.

    I have no problem with people criticizing British cases like this–the extra publicity can help to shine a light where it’s needed, I’m just not convinced that having freedom of speech enshrined in a written constitution (e.g. as in the US) makes that much difference in practical terms.

    In spite of the Constitution, historically, the US has either been behind or just about even with countries like the UK when it comes to protecting the rights of its citizens–e.g. the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, etc.

    And I think that even today, where the USA incarcerates five times more of its citizens than does the UK, and is fifth in the world in executions (the only true democracy in the top ten), the authoritarian streak that runs a mile wide in the US judicial system far outweighs the advantages of having constitutional freedom of speech protections.

  14. AsqJames says

    Whether or not (and to what extent) this incident has been exaggerated by the cafe owners or their xtian pals, the wording of S.5 of the Public Order Act is clearly so broad as to be open to severe abuse. However…

    Though we don’t have a direct equivalent of the US 1st amendment, since 1953 we have had the European Convention on Human Rights, and through it, (theoretical*) recourse to the European Court of Human Rights. And since the 1998 Human Rights Act incorporated the Convention into domestic law, we can rely on the rights enshrined within it before domestic courts.

    Under Article 9 of the ECHR (Freedom of conscience), “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to (…) manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance” and under Article 10 (Freedom of Expression) “everyone has the right of freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to (…) impart information and ideas without interference by public authority”.

    * I might be wrong, but I think that prior to the 1998, UK courts could not rely on the Convention or precedents from the Court in making their judgments. You had to use domestic law and precedents in your defense and subsequent appeals until they were exhausted before applying to the European Court under the Convention. Since that whole process is probably more trouble and certainly more expensive than the kind of punishment you’d get for (e.g.) a section 5 offense, and the wait to get your case heard by the ECHR could be compared to that for the US Supreme Court, in practice it made little difference.

  15. says

    Err, tacitus @16….you start off great, even expressly acknowledging the value of being willing to criticize your own country when it deserves it (a belief which Ed has acknowledged numerous times himself, and puts in practice regularly).

    And then you go right off into the deep end by acting as if this is some sort of ultimate competition of who is better and more free, the UK or the US. Why? Did Ed say anything of the sort? Did anyone say anything of the sort? Is there something wrong with being grateful for the First Amendment because it places this particular sort of infringement on free speech in the realm of the incredibly unlikely?

    No, and you’ve been posting here more than long enough to know that.

  16. Brain Hertz says

    And then you go right off into the deep end by acting as if this is some sort of ultimate competition of who is better and more free, the UK or the US. Why? Did Ed say anything of the sort?

    Uh, yes. He did, actually. Right between the title and the first sentence.

    Did anyone say anything of the sort?

    Yes. You did.

    Is there something wrong with being grateful for the First Amendment because it places this particular sort of infringement on free speech in the realm of the incredibly unlikely?

    Right there, actually…

    Note that there’s a big difference between what the laws say and what the police do, both here and in the UK (See numerous references on this blog, for instance). There’s a fairly obvious disconnect between talking about what laws guarantee, and what the police do.

    The implication of the title of the post, and the more direct implication of my last block quote from you, is that the first amendment somehow prevents this kind of police overreach. This just doesn’t follow, as should be pretty obvious from observation. Not only that, but as pointed out upthread, there is something equivalent to the first amendment in Europe. Note that no actual prosecution occurred in this case, because the law just doesn’t allow it…

  17. tacitus says

    And then you go right off into the deep end by acting as if this is some sort of ultimate competition of who is better and more free, the UK or the US. Why? Did Ed say anything of the sort? Did anyone say anything of the sort? Is there something wrong with being grateful for the First Amendment because it places this particular sort of infringement on free speech in the realm of the incredibly unlikely?

    Well the implication of Ed’s post is that the UK would be better off with an enshrined constitutional right to the freedom of speech, and all was trying to say was that, historically at least, such clearly enunciated constitutional protections and rights haven’t really proven to be much of an advantage in the USA, if at all.

    And while I didn’t mention it the first time around, I do think it’s a bit presumptuous to say that “England has a real free speech problem” even if the article is correct. The true test of a people’s rights is not the initial reaction, but how it is resolved. As the article itself says, this type of thing has happened before, and resulted in the police issuing an apology and compensating those who were involved. Of course, it would be better if the police had taken their training to heart, but the same thing happens daily in the US, and often takes time to wind its way through the courts to its (mostly) correct resolution.

    I actually think that the First Amendment is a double-edged sword, especially now that corporations have been classified as people and spending money has been classified as free speech. There are also problems when the right to freedom of speech butt up against the right to a fair trial. There are tight restrictions on what the British press can say about an ongoing trial, and I think that’s a good thing, even though it wouldn’t pass constitutional muster in the USA.

    The bottom line is that I think we all agree that freedom of speech is vitally important to a free society, but that we can agree to differ on the undoubted limits to that right when measured against other important rights, like the right to a fair trial, and the right to free and fair elections.

    I cannot commend Ed highly enough in his defense of the constitutional right to free speech in the USA, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be occasionally critical (even if mildly) of some of the things he says. :-).

  18. cholten99 says

    Let’s see… *google*… *click*… *click*…

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-15072408

    “Lancashire Police denied that its officers told Mr Murray to remove any materials.

    A force statement added: ‘It appears that the officer has misinterpreted the Public Order Act and we have apologised to the cafe owner for any distress we may have caused.’”

    Well, that took less time to debunk than it took me to write this comment…

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