There's a scene near the end of the Rutles movie, All You Need is Cash, where Eric Manchester, the Rutle Corp Press Agent (played by Michael Palin), says: Suddenly, everyone became amazingly litigious. I remember I'd get up in the morning. Sue someone. Check in the papers that I hadn't been fired. Go to the office. Sue someone. Pick up the morning's writs. Sue the bank. Go out for lunch. Sue the restaurant. Get back in, collect the writs that had been received that afternoon. Read the papers. Phone the papers. Sue the papers. Then go home. Sue the wife.
Freedom of expression is currently under attack and it's no joke.
Firstly, there's Twittergate. Paul Chambers tweeted a not especially funny remark and has lost his job, got a criminal record and is facing a fine of thousands of pounds after an appeal at the Crown Court failed. Martin Robbins covers the story here. Chambers tweeted: Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!! He was found guilty under section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act:
Improper use of public electronic communications network
A person is guilty of an offence if he—
sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or
causes any such message or matter to be so sent.
A person is guilty of an offence if, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, he—
sends by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that he knows to be false,
causes such a message to be sent; or
persistently makes use of a public electronic communications network.
A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both.
Subsections (1) and (2) do not apply to anything done in the course of providing a programme service (within the meaning of the Broadcasting Act 1990 (c. 42)).
Then there's Dalia Nield who is under threat of being sued for saying that a cream which claims to increase bust size 'by up to 8.4%' is unlikely to work. Nield is a prominent plastic surgeon and has serious concerns about both the efficacy and the safety of Boob Job cream. According to the website, 'Boob Job works with your natural fat cells. As the fat cells move around the body after eating, boob job 'blocks' the fat into the area where the product has been applied, so the bust and décolleté areas. You will see a gradual increase in cup size within 56 days as well as gaining an instant lifting and firming effect.'.
Then there is the couple suing the RSPB which said that the couple's research may have harmed the black grouse that they were studying and that their methods were 'untried and untested'.
The Campaign for Libel Reform lists many others who either have been sued or who are threatened.
It's important to remember that it's not just the UK's shameful libel laws that are threatening freedom of expression. There is 'defamation of religion', a tactic used by some religious groups to shut down any criticism or even discussion of beliefs and practices. These religious groups claim the right not to be offended, questioned, challenged or called to account. The National Secular Society has written a document about the dangers here (in the interests of full disclosure, I wrote some of it).
As Resolution 1510 (2006)4 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe points out: 'What is likely to cause substantial offence to persons of a particular religious persuasion will vary significantly from time to time and from place to place'. Offence is a good tactic because it's so subjective, personal and nebulous.
Another tactic is to claim so-called Christianophobia or Islamophobia or to conflate race with religion, stifling debate with accusations of persecution and racism.
Resolution 1510 (2006) by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe states that:
1. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe reaffirms that there cannot be a democratic society without the fundamental right to freedom of expression. The progress of society and the development of every individual depend on the possibility of receiving and imparting information and ideas. This freedom is not only applicable to expressions that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive but also to those that may shock, offend or disturb the state or any sector of the population, in accordance with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ETS No. 5).
In the UK, the crime of religiously aggravated offence introduced in 2006 represents a new kind of blasphemy law and the crime of religiously aggravated insulting behaviour carries a sentence of up to 7 years in prison. The original blasphemy law was abolished in March 2008. Professional offence-takers in religious communities have already begun to exploit this new avenue of restricting criticism and comment.
A sample of attempts by religious groups to stifle freedom of expression:
Waterstones bookshop was threatened by Christian Voice and cancelled a reading at a Cardiff branch by Welsh poet Patrick Jones.
A statue by the artist Terrence Koh at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead provoked outrage and condemnation by Christians.
Behzti, a play depicting rape in a Sikh temple, provoked violent protests and thousands of pounds of damage at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in December 2004. The theatre was forced to cancel the play on safety grounds and playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti fled into hiding after receiving death threats.
The London exhibition of the work of Maqbool Fida Husain was closed after threats of violence from Hindu fundamentalists in 2006.
Jerry Springer – the Opera provoked street protests, threats to theatres and the publicizing of private addresses of BBC executives after it was shown on television - even though most of the complainants hadn't even seen it.
And of course, there was the Danish cartoons incident. More recently, religious groups tried to get a TV advert for Marie Stopes clinics banned and an ice cream ad was banned by the ASA after just six complaints because it showed two priests about to kiss.
Freedom of expression, scientific debate and even the ability to make flippant remarks on Twitter can no longer be taken for granted. Do not criticise me, do not question me, do not challenge me and, above all, do not offend me. Dark days.