The Post editorial board on Britain’s censorship of a Scientology protest sign: A defeat for free expression

It may be one thing for freedom of expression to be an object of controversy in Canada — which is, after all, a somewhat tenuous experiment in democracy and federalism, one whose final shape and outcome may yet remain to be determined — but it is quite another to see it tormented in Great Britain, the historical anchor of most of the liberties we take for granted. When Britain injures what the rest of regard as British principles, it is a source of particular sorrow. On May 10, a teenager protesting peaceably outside the London headquarters of the Church of Scientology had a placard confiscated by London Police, who deemed it criminally “insulting.” Crown prosecutors refused to follow up, which was hailed as a “victory” for free speech.

Some victory. The sign was being wielded by an unidentified minor, who was taking part in the latest of a series of Internetorganized “anonymous” protests.

If protest materials can be confiscated, then not much is left of the right to protest against Scientology. It read “Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult.” The lad was, by his account, warned “within five minutes of arriving” by police on the scene that his sign was unlikely to be permitted because it contained the word “cult.” Shortly thereafter, a policewoman read him a section (introduced in 1994) of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act:

“A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he … displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.”

The youth pointed out that Scientology was described in 1984 as a “cult” (and called “corrupt, sinister and dangerous”) by none other than a family judge of London’s High Court, but the unmoved officer took away the sign and handed him a summons. A swift spasm of indignation swept the English press, which pointed out that senior members of the London Police have a recent history of appearing in Scientology promotional videos and accepting gifts from the church. On Friday, crown prosecutors announced that no further action would be taken against the boy.

It was quickly pointed out by civil libertarians that the eventual happy outcome did nothing to reverse the consequences of the initial error. If expressive materials at a public protest can be confiscated pending two weeks of review by prosecutors, then not much is left of the right to protest, practically speaking. What few in Britain have pointed out is how vague and pathetic the text of the Public Order Act is. Objectively, one cannot say that the police officers acting as a praetorian guard for Scientology were overstepping their bounds under the act. No one ever calls a religion a “cult” without intending to insult it, and any “alarm or distress” thereby resulting must entirely be in the eye and mind of the beholder. The boy was, under the act, arguably quite guilty.