Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Is this really a free speech issue?

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The MediaWatchWatch blog reports, via the Liverpool Daily Post, that a 59-year-old "militant atheist", Harry Taylor, is on trial for "three counts of religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress" after repeatedly placing anti-Islamic and anti-Christian cartoons in the prayer room at Liverpool John Lennon Airport. If convicted, he could face a jail sentence.

MediaWatchWatch suggests it would be a blow to free speech if Taylor was convicted, saying:
"The fact that this case has gone to court is bad enough, but if Taylor gets prosecuted then it surely won’t be long before the Archangel Gabriel blows his horn and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse come galloping down a street near you."
I thought I'd blog about this myself, as I'm really not convinced that this is a free speech issue. I'm just not sure the right to criticise, satirise, ridicule and insult religious belief should really extend to deliberately putting cartoons of pigs excreting sausages labelled Qu'ran (one of several Taylor left) in a room where adherents to a religion go to quietly, and privately, practise their faith. And not only do it once, but on three separate occassions. I think there's certainly a case for saying that the aim of that it is to "harass, alarm or distress" religious believers by making them feel uncomfortable in an environment where they have gone precisely to be able to feel comfortable practising their faith in a busy public building.

Here, in case you're wondering, is Mr Taylor's justification for what he did:
"The airport is named after John Lennon and his views on religion were pretty much the same as mine. I thought that it was an insult to his memory to have a prayer room in the airport."
He says that in placing the cartoons he was just practising his own religion of "reason and rationality", which is certainly a new way of looking at rationality.

Ultimately, I'm not sure what I think with this. If free speech has its limits at the point where it becomes something like harassment, surely Taylor's behaviour was fairly close to that line? But at the same time, it hardly seems like something worthy of a jail sentence. Certainly at the age of 59 he should have known better (and for that matter have better things to be doing with his time). If he had an objection to the airport prayer room on account of his own "religion of reason and rationality", why didn't he express it rationally and write a letter?

I'm opening this one to the floor.


Eiskrystal said...

FAIL: He's a moron, making the rest of us look stupid and nasty by association. I also doubt that the lounge is "public property". So free speech is not much of a defense.

Abusing free speech in this way merely cheapens its meaning. John Lennon would NOT have approved.

Hydra said...

Another muppet NOT helping! This isn't about free speech but discrimination and ignorance on his part. Making a point is one thing, repeated attacks is harassment.

That said, I think a jail term is excessive... but maybe some community service... cleaning up churches?!

Psychodiva said...

Definitely NOT a free speech issue and he has now done the rest of us a disservice by acting like a complete prat

Barry said...

Free speech also means having the freedom to offend.

Barry said...

To expand a bit; what if the roles were reversed? What if a Christian man had repeatedly put up pro-Christian messages and cartoons slagging off atheists at, say, an atheist gathering?

Would he have been arrested? Would that have even registered as an offence?

Matt said...

@Barry: You need to make the distinction as to what kind of gathering. If this is some kind of public atheist gathering like a rally at a park or something, that's one thing. But if this is a private gathering, in a meeting place particularly designated for this meeting (i.e. a banquet hall or living room), that's something else. Then we're talking about private space specifically designated for that use. What happened at in the airport is closer to the latter.

Crystal Van Wieren said...

Would people be pitching a fit if there was an atheist group meeting, and people were handing out religious pamphlets? What if that was something that was continually done on multiple occasions? I can't say that something like this has happened, but I would not be surprised if I was told it had. Nor would I be surprised to find that the majority of people would either ignore such a practice or even praise it.

Now what if there was an atheist group at a university, and their office space had, on several occasions, Chick tracts put up on their door or in their office space. My question to Paul Sims is: In either of these situations, would you still call them harassment? More importantly, would you still be as critical of these situations as you are of this situation w/ the anti-religious cartoons?

In reference to both of the situations above, I think most people wouldn't think anything of it. Mainly because that's the role religious people have often played. They come to your door and proselytize. They leave religious pamphlets on the table for their waitresses. They put up religious posters and notices in public areas. No one bats an eye. It's when someone puts up something criticizing religion that everyone sits up and takes notice.

I think it is difficult to call it harassment when you are putting up pictures of cartoons that can just as easily be taken down.

Tom Rees said...

Personally, I would like the right to hold private meetings with fellow humanists free from harassment byreligious nutters. So I support restrictions on free speech in this instance.

Helen said...

Weel, it was probably not a good strategy to get his point, and not too sophisticated. But: airport prayer rooms are usually public and multifaith, so anyone is entitled to use them, also an atheist.
Now, leaving behind a Bible/Quran/etc is as much an insult to anyone not Christian/Muslim/etc. as leaving any cartoon - a cartoon rarely claims to be the absolute truth, unlike holy books, and the only real insult to a holy book is another holy book.
Maybe he should have rather left a Biblie and a Quran with the not-really-nice passages highlighted...

Basically, he is of course right about having the right to practise his "religion" in an interfaith prayer room. However, he should have been fined for littering.

- Ah, yes, and if any religious symbols happen to hang around there outside prayer time dedicated to that particular religion, they should be fined on the same grounds, too.

Cole_Ford said...

I think the cartoons sound offensive to some (which is not a crime per se) and are only "satirical" if taken in the context of being aimed to offend someone who is a muslim. I assume the others had similar targets in mind. I think this is bad manners, and just because you (we) don't beleive in a god doesn't free us from a moral responsability to be nice to people and not offend them for our own amusement. Like the first poster, I think this man's behaviour is moronic, regardless of whether you think Muslims (or any other relegious beleivers) are deluded fantasists.

Eric said...

I guess I'm ignorant about what kind of "speech" is actually protected. I'm wondering what should happen if he had left the cartoons anywhere else in the airport. Forget the content, are people allowed to just litter any pseudo public place with any type of materials? Unless they are posted on a public bulletin board that the airport provides, isn't this really just littering?

DavidMWW said...

Those questioning the character of Harry Taylor and the helpfulness of his actions to the humanist/free speech cause are missing the point.

He is not the one who should be demonised here - at most he can be blamed for giving atheism a bad name, and littering.

The real villain of this story is airport chaplain. She saw these cartoons, and called the fucking police. There is no indication that Taylor had been warned not to leave cartoons around the prayer room (which would have been a reasonable request). All we know is that Nicky Lees brought in the law as soon as she saw these cartoons. And now Taylor faces the possibility of a jail sentence.

Yes, Taylor may be a prat - but so what? Nobody is insisting on the right to leave offensive cartoons on pews. The real threat to free speech here is the mindset of squealing sky-pilot who thinks cartoonish offence-giving is, first and foremost, a matter for the courts to deal with.

That is scary.

jimbo said... gonna side with the old boy on this one! I mean we are pestered by JW's on our doorsteps,have church bells ringing in our ears on a sunday let the atheists have their moment. Yeah I think old JL (rest in peace mate) would be right behind him...whats a prayer room doing in the bloody airport anyway?! If people want to munch rugs,or pray for god knows what, let them do it at their local wendy house for the lost and bewildered .
Just give him a telling off,and tell him to compete with that nuttah on oxford st,that should keep him busy.

DavidMWW said...

Another thing for the point missers: Taylor is not charged with being a moron, a prat, giving atheists a bad name, or littering. He is being charged with "Religiously aggravated disorderly behaviour with Intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress."

He was leafletting. Religious people do it all the time. He'll probably get six months.

Eiskrystal said...

-I think it is difficult to call it harassment when you are putting up pictures of cartoons that can just as easily be taken down.-

It's funny, all that the comments supporting his actions have pointed out is that we don't expect much from the religious.

However doing to them what they do to us is not acceptable behaviour. As you have pointed out, its harrassment no matter who is doing it. My apologies for having higher standards for atheists than the religious. What can I say.

Also, he has done this 3 times. Not once...but as you say, prison is completely over the top. Not to mention a complete waste of everyones time and money.

DavidMWW said...

The same point-missing reactions occurred during the Motoons farrago. All the bien-pensant commenters were tut-tutting about the provocative nature of the Motoons, berating Jyllands-Posten for stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment, and sneering at their lack of artistic merit. Only after they'd done all that would they add the post script: of course, the rioting, arson, bombing and mayhem that followed was an over-the-top reaction.

But it is the reaction that is the point. It is the reaction that needs to be condemned.

Sorry for saying essentially the same thing three times, but as Eiskrystal apparently read my previous two comments and still came away with the idea that I was "supporting his actions" rather than condemning the reactions, I thought maybe a third one might help the point sink in.

What you think of Taylor and his actions is irrelevant. The issue is the reaction. To focus on whether or not Taylor lives up to the "higher standards" you expect of your fellow atheists is just pious posturing.

Eiskrystal said...

Over-reaction? Maybe they were sick of some weirdo with a grudge repeatedly leaving sexually perverted and deeply insulting images (acccording to the article) where they were working. So they did something about it.

Comparing this to the Danish cartoons is, I believe, way too tenuous.

I'm afraid my "pious posturing" was a direct and flippant insult to the religious. Nothing more.

King Mob said...

Isn't the problem not that his behavior should be allowed, but the law he's being charged with? It seems like it's a special law revolving around religion (I'm an Anerican, so let me know if I'm getting this wrong.) Presumably, they should just keep him out of the chapel, or charge him with being disorderly or something.

Eiskrystal said...

True, i've never heard of this one actually, but then we have all sorts of strange laws left over from the "dark" ages.

Ignazio said...

There is an airport in Italy named after the previous pope. Following the line of reasoning of this guy, condoms should not be sold in the airport. Same reasoning can be applied to streets, buildings, and so on. Doesn't take much to realize it's an untenable position, since it would only hurt economic interests, or inconvenience people, for no real gain. He's not being forced not to speak, he's being forced not to be a pain to other people.