About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, April 26, 2010

Outrageous attack on freedom of speech in the UK

As Ophelia says, this means war.

According to the Daily Telegraph (UK):

Harry Taylor, 59, left home made posters at Liverpool John Lennon Airport three times in November and December 2008.

The self-styled philosopher denied three counts of causing religiously aggravated harassment, alarm or distress but was convicted in less than an hour by a unanimous jury.

Among the posters, one image showed a smiling crucified Christ next to an advert for a brand of ''no nails'' glue.

In another, a cartoon depicted two Muslims holding a placard demanding equality with the caption: ''Not for women or gays, obviously.''

Islamic suicide bombers at the gates of paradise were told in another: ''Stop, stop, we've run out of virgins.''

Tasteful? No. But he did not do anything that was illegal, independent of the authoritarian legislation used to convict him. Taylor has been slapped with an Anti-Social Behaviour Order, which bans him from carrying "religiously offensive" material in a public place. As reported by the Telegraph, he was also sentenced to six months' imprisonment, suspended for two years, ordered to perform 100 hours of unpaid work, and pay costs of 250 pounds.

Taylor may be a bit obsessive, as he's done this sort of thing before, but he should have freedom of speech. Thus, I have a slightly different emphasis from Ophelia. Granted, this debacle may well say something about the rights of atheists; but I also think it shows, more generally, yet again, and very powerfully, how a don't-rock-the-boat mentality is undermining freedom of speech. People who are eccentric or obsessive should be free to spread their messages in public, just like those of us who are more inclined to conform, speak decorously, and not rock the boat.

It's time to redouble our efforts to defend free speech against these constant attacks from people, including legislators and judges, who see it as having low value.


That Guy Montag said...

Just finished listening to the Today programme where John Humphreys, an admitted and open Atheist with conciliatory leanings, did his best to defend Free Speech against the sputterings of Dr Peter Forster, the Bishop of Chester. This is of course all regarding the leaked Foreign Office memo here in the UK.

I haven't looked into the case yet, but it seems simple to argue there that the private positions of even government employees are just that and irrelevant unless they impinge upon their public duties.

The argument they were having however was the other old Chestnut of offense and by extension secularism more broadly and what struck me was that arguments of Freedom of Speech, while great in principle and intellectually robust, don't have the force they need to tackle a position as emotive as offense.

I'm curious if anybody has an idea of how we can make the issue of Freedom of Speech less a blanket appeal to a right and more stark and personal which seems to me what the argument needs.

Anonymous said...

I do see why the ban was placed, and it probably wasn't because of the Christian jibe - which is quite funny, really.

But, some religions are a bit narky and the idea of tom foolery in regards to belief may in fact cause civil unrest in the UK...

Trust me, that was a rock and a hard place decision


Joel said...

I haven't managed to find images of the posters anywhere online yet (I found a Google image thumbnail of what might be the virgins one, but the site hosting it was down), but I'm struggling to see what's so distasteful about those messages. The ideas being mocked in the last two mentioned certainly were distasteful, but the posters themselves?

Eamon Knight said...

I can see where a misdemeanor conviction for vandalism might be arguable (you don't have an absolute right to other people's walls), but harassment? Jail time? No carrying certain material? WTF?!?

Anonymous said...

I don't think you're being harsh enough, to be honest. It is an absolutely egregious decision and the tone of your blog entry seems to be tinged with a hint of 'he didn't do the right thing, but still..'.

Anonymous said...

Contrast this to the Fred Phelps/Westboro Baptist Church antics
in the US. Now tell me, which is more reprehensible, free-speech issues aside.



BenSix said...

Anon -

That's such a great standard to judge by! I'm going out to tell the biggest, drunkest guy in the pub that his mother shows little discernment re: matters sexual. If challenged, I'll just say, "Hey, at least I'm not Pastor Phelps!"