The cult of free speech

Scientology is a controversial topic. Suffice it to say that there are those so strongly opposed to Scientology that they hold demonstrations outside Scientology premises. One such demonstration took place outside the group’s UK headquarters in the City of London on 10th May. A young man taking part in the demonstration held up a placard that read: “Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult.” He was asked by a police officer to take his placard down. Objection was taken to his use of the word “cult”. When he refused, he was formally warned that he could be prosecuted under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.

Section 5 makes it an offence to display a sign that is “threatening, abusive or insulting” when there is someone around who might be caused “harassment, alarm or distress” by it. One would have hoped that something would have to be pretty offensive both to meet that description and to provoke that response, but it seems that a senior officer policing the demonstration on May 10, in the face perhaps of scientologist protestations that they were indeed distressed by the use of the word “cult”, considered that the offence had been committed.

Wiser counsel has since prevailed and the young man concerned learnt today that he is not to be prosecuted after all. But to an extent the damage had already been done. As a lawyer working for Liberty, who is frequently asked for advice by people who have had dealings with the police in the course of a demonstration, I know how easily even minor actions by the police – photographing, asking someone’s name, searches – can have a chilling effect on the right to protest. While the anti-Scientologists may now feel secure in using the word “cult” in their protests, won’t they be worried that they, too, could be prosecuted for some other forceful expression of their views?