Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Cartoons in the prayer room: free speech or harassment?

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Over at Index on Censorship, I've put one side of the argument over the conviction of Salford-based atheist Harry Taylor for leaving anti-religious cartoons in the prayer room at Liverpool John Lennon Airport. He received a suspended prison sentence of six months, 100 hours of community service, £250 costs, and a five-year ASBO, and some commentators have argued that this represents the introduction of a new blasphemy law by the back door. That's the line taken by Ophelia Benson, editor of the excellent Butterflies and Wheels website, who provides the counter-argument for Index. She argues the conviction is disturbingly illiberal and representative of the creeping censorship that surrounds the criticism of religion in our society.

My piece argues that secularism involves a balance between the right to criticise and insult religion and the rights of religious believers to go about their worship without harassment. Looking at what Harry Taylor did, I find it hard to agree that he was simply exercising his right to free speech. To me, it seems as though he crossed the blurred line between free speech and harassment, or certainly came close to doing so. I argue that we need to pick our free speech battles carefully, and this isn't one of them.

I'm very interested to know what people think – I expect a lot of you will disagree with me. Head over to Index and have a look at what Ophelia and I have to say, and then have your say by leaving a comment here.


Lambert said...

I could not disagree more. First this was not a place of worship, but a prayer room set up in a location honoring John Lennon, and these is no doubt in my mind that he would never have wanted any such prayer room.

Secondly the complainant ('chaplain' running the prayer room)claims to have been hurt and offended by the cartoons. Well what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I find depictions of xtian imagery, which are visible in every town in the public street offensive too. Especially crucifixes. There is some compelling need to represent such vicious means of killing people in public? I don't think so.

When can we start prosecuting catholic churches for such offensive displays?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Paul Sims. Those cartoons shouldn't have been left there. Tolerance and mutual respect are important and we atheists should be the first to give example. That doesn't mean that he deserves to be punished.

Jon Evans said...

It's discourteous to leave the cartoons in their place of sky fairy worship. However it's discourteous of them to preach at me in the street when I'm doing my shopping and I never complain to the authorities. I am considering doing so now though as it seems to be possible for me to claim they are inciting religious hatred.

As for tolerance and mutual respect those aren't human rights. You are not entitled to people's respect or tolerance of everything you say and do. If you are kicking a football around a public park that should be tolerated. If you are kicking it around the high street that is a pain for everyone else. If you like a certain type of music we can respect your right to have a different opinion. It doesn't mean we shouldn't be allowed to say you have terrible taste in music. No-one has the right to not be offended or criticised.

Kevin said...

I rather think that Lennon doesn't care about a prayer-room right now.

I would agree that it was over the line, and some sort of penalty should apply. It's hard enough to fight religious intolerance without our 'own' being intolerant. I don't go for the 'eye-for-an-eye' approach.

However, whatever happened to 'turn the other cheek'? A chaplain really is so disturbed by a behavior displayed equally by her own 'flock'? Seems to me that is an equally intolerant approach.shon

George Jelliss said...

Is this "prayer room" a public place? If so why can't an atheist use it to do a bit of blaspheming? If not, isn't this discrimination against atheists? What happens when christians and muslims want to use the room at the same time? Do they have to stick to ecumenical prayers?

Eiskrystal said...

-but a prayer room set up in a location honoring John Lennon-

using the name of John Lennon because he was popular more like. This is an airport, not a charity.

How are we supposed to ever get a good repution if we lower ourselves to christian standards.

DavidMWW said...

I read the piece, and I can't quite believe it. Is Paul actually saying

1) The chaplain was right to call the police when she found the cartoons,
2) the police were right to prosecute person who left the cartoons?

Paul Sims said...

Hi David (we always have fun debating these don't we!)

To take your points:

1) From my own perspective no, I don't think she was right to call the police. If it was me (though unfortunately it's quite a large leap to place myself in the shoes of a chaplain), I'd have just thrown the things in the bin and got on with my day.

However, I do think she had the *right* to call the police. She's responsible for the prayer room, and making sure it fulfils its role as a quiet place for prayer in a busy airport (let's leave aside the issue of whether there should be prayer rooms for now). She finds the cartoons in the prayer room, which suggest that someone who doesn't much care for religion is trying to undermine the purpose of the room and her job. She is entitled to want to try and stop this happening again, and who else is she to report this to other than the airport authorities. Now, personally I think she could have binned them the first time, but I also think she had the right to inform the police.

Also, leaving anti-religious cartoons in a prayer room is a very odd thing to do, and I can see why some people might also view it as an aggressive act. Perhaps the chaplain was thinking, who is this person doing this? It's not suggestive of someone particularly stable. What else might they plan to do to make their point? Do they pose a threat to the users of the prayer room? It's the chaplain's job to look after the room and provide chaplaincy services, and not her job to have to deal with strange acts like this. Perhaps she was oversensitive, but at the same time, perhaps she did have cause for concern.

I've been trying to think of an analogy involving myself as an atheist. It isn't identical, but I thought of this. What if someone was repeatedly leaving religious messages on the door of the New Humanist office, informing me that I'm desperately deluded, or telling me I'm going to hell perhaps. Now the first few times I'd just laugh it off (but some wouldn't, I think), but after a couple of times, I'd start to think who is this religious nutter going to this effort to make their point against me? Are the messages the limit of their actions, or is there a possibility that they might also want to hurt me. Now, personally I could probably handle this, but I would also have the right to be perturbed by it, and call in the police to investigate. I have the right to come to work every day and do my day job without being harassed by someone who disagrees with me on questions of metaphysics.

As I said, not exactly the same, but I think it has similarities. Yes I do think the chaplain was oversensitive, but she wasn't completely wrong to want it investigated.

Moving on to 2), should the police have prosecuted? You have to feel it could have been resolved by other means, but then you learn that he has a long track record of this kind of nonsense, so what are the police supposed to do? Here's what I just commented over at Butterflies and Wheels:

"I agree that the punishment handed out to him was excessive, but at the same time, what were the police supposed to do? He’d been caught doing the same thing in the past in churches, so clearly a quiet word or a caution wasn’t going to do it. So it follows, should he be allowed to just carry on doing it, or should he be stopped? At which point, the only means to stop him is to prosecute him for a crime. To me, the crime of “causing religiously aggravated harassment, alarm or distress” seems very harsh, but I feel I’d need a better understanding of the law in order to say that he should have been prosecuted for something else."

Those have ended up being long points, but I do think this is quite complicated. In my view, it's not just a clear cut case of an innocent man's free speech rights being trampled all over by creeping religious sensitivities.

Felix said...



since the airport is in fact private property, the owners could have had him prosecuted for trespass since they have provided the room for a purpose - he was not making use of it in the allowed manner and was in fact abusing it.

He could also have been banned from the airport by the owners.

That we have a crime on the statute books of "causing religiously aggravated harassment, alarm or distress"
is an abomination and also gives special rights to the religious which you and I do not possess.

Over at IndexonCensorship you said:

"[people] have basic rights to go about their business unharried"

I think that you are incorrect.

In a public space (which this wasn’t) person 1 has a right to go about her business and person 2 has a right to protest in a lawful manner even if this upsets person 1.

Further more in the comment post above you repeatedly refer to the "right of the chaplain to call the police".

This is a logical fallacy.

Of course she had the right to call the police. I have the right to call the police when I get home to find that my cat has peeed on the floor.

Whether the police decide that I am wasting their time is another matter.

George Jelliss said...

Paul wrote: "What if someone was repeatedly leaving religious messages ... informing me that I'm desperately deluded, or telling me I'm going to hell perhaps."

Lots of people already get such messages from religions, some of them like JWs even call in person to tell you. Are we now to call the police and claim harassment?

uzza said...

Some points:
1) The place to start picking our battles is exactly here, at the beginning of this slippery slope, not after this becomes the norm at airports as JL Airport is trying to make it.

I find it difficult to believe that JLA is not a public space, partially supported by tax dollars. Legally I can't say, but ethically it has no business with a prayer room, much less a chaplain (!!), which by its very nature privileges one group, those who prayer, over another, those who don't. Take away that discriminatory modifier and you have a “lounge” or a “waiting area”. As you should.

Facing those who '“harass, alarm or distress” non-believers by making them feel uncomfortable using a ... busy public building', led Taylor to "stage a protest as is his right” and is probably his best tactic (unlike the chaplain, he couldn't have anyone arrested).

2) harassment is not an issue, as he was convicted of “causing ... alarm or distress.”

3) I’d need a better understanding of the law in order to say that he should have been prosecuted for something else.
IOW you are sure he should be prosecuted, only confused about what crime to charge him with?
How about, he should have been prosecuted for whatever law he broke, if he did in fact break one.

4)leaving anti-religious cartoons in a prayer room is a very odd thing to do
This should read "leaving religious books in a motel room is a very odd thing to do, but the constant bombardment with anti-humanist propaganda has left us so numb we accept it as the default.

Rob said...

I must admit that as a Christian - actually, someone going through the process to become a Priest (God help me), I found the cartoons quite funny!

When I first heard the story I thought the sentence was disproportionate, but at that point I hadn't read 'where' he left the cartoons. Obviously he intended to upset people - they weren't educational in any way - i.e. designed to 'evangelise' to people of religious ilk on the many benefits of atheism, they were purely to get a reaction.

I think his actions do a dis-service to atheists everywhere, and presumably he has a lot of anger towards people of faith (at least he had a multi faith approach though :) ) - Fundamentalism is a dangerous thing from any group or person, and he has (in my opinion) demonstrated that he is angry, and that anger is directed towards people of faith.

As for Lambert's comment - grow up mate, they are not put there to offend, in fact they were more than likely there before you, so it isn't a strategic placement of crucifixes in order to upset you. And as for preaching in the streets - if it offends it offends, but that's not the INTENTION - whereas, this guy obviously targeted a place to be offensive. I get offended at all sorts of things, from smelly people on the tube to ... well, too many - but the point is, the majority of us are not going out of our way to offend others.

Also - you know what, prayer rooms and chaplains are NEVER just there for the religious - they rarely push religion on people, they are there as a service, a person to talk to. A friend of mine is a hospital chaplain, and it really is just a case of being a shoulder to cry on - but if you don't know that (and most of the time we are just ignorant about these things and go off on one) - then you assume that they are there to do a sales job for Jesus - that is so far from what actually happens.

We are far from the days where someone is going to be locked up for blasphemy, I think you will find the sentence came about due to the intention to offend a group of people - hmmm, now what does that remind you of?