NEWS
Atheists and asbos: What price offence?
28 Apr 2010
BY INDEX ON CENSORSHIP

The conviction of Liverpool atheist Harry Taylor for placing “offensive” cartoons in an airport prayer room has caused controversy among secularists. Butterflies and Wheels’ Ophelia Benson and Paul Sims of New Humanist magazine go head to head

Ophelia Benson: the right to believe doesn’t mean the right not to be offended

Harry Taylor left some cartoons or leaflets in a “prayer room” at a municipal airport, and for this non-crime he was convicted of “causing religiously aggravated harassment, alarm or distress.” He was sentenced to six months in jail suspended for two years, 100 hours of unpaid work, £250 in court costs, and an anti-social behaviour order banning him from carrying religiously offensive material in a public place.

To me this sounds like a thought experiment or a joke intended to illustrate what happens when people get so neurotically obsessed with “communities” and “identity” and “faith” and “respect” that they lose all sense of the difference between mere offense and real harm.

It is not difficult to see why some people would find what Taylor did “offensive”; it is even possible to see why they might find it very, very, very, offensive. But the problem there is that no matter how many “verys” you add to “offensive,” you still don’t get a crime.

Lots of things are offensive. On grumpy days it can seem that the world consists largely of offensive sights, sounds, smells, behaviours, people, songs, movies, TV shows, political views – you name it. But that is too bad. We just have to put up with it. We don’t get to declare everything we dislike a crime, and we don’t get to send everybody who annoys us to jail.

That is, we shouldn’t get to do that, but in certain circumstances, it turns out, we do. Given the right combination of sentimental protectiveness toward “faith” and half-frightened deference to “communities” we get to do exactly that. The Liverpool Post reported Nicky Lee’s, the airport chaplain, and since when do airports have chaplains? As saying:

I was insulted, deeply offended and I was alarmed. I was so concerned that I rang the duty manager and the airport police. I was alarmed other people could come in and see these items and also feel offended and affronted and I was responsible for the prayer room.

She was insulted, deeply offended, alarmed, and so concerned that she called the police. That’s the problem right there: being offended, even deeply offended, should not be a reason to call the police. The reason for that is simple and obvious enough: if being deeply offended is sufficient reason to call the police and charge the offender with a crime and punish the offender with a harsh sentence, then soon there will be nothing left. Nothing at all. No books, no TV, no magazines, no internet, no conversation; nothing. Putting up with being offended is the price we pay for having ideas.

Ophelia Benson is editor of the website Butterflies and Wheels

Paul Sims: Atheists should choose their free speech battles

No religion or belief system should receive special protection from criticism, ridicule or even insult. But at the same time individual adherents of any religion or belief system should be free to practise their belief without obstruction or harassment from those that disagree with them. Sometimes these core secular values will come into conflict, and when they do we need to pay particular attention to the context and detail of the given case, rather than reach for the blunt instrument of absolute rights. This is why I disagree with many of my fellow secularists over the conviction for “causing religiously aggravated harassment, alarm or distress” of Harry Taylor, the 59-year-old atheist who left cartoons mocking various religions in the prayer room of Liverpool John Lennon Airport.

Taylor, who was convicted on 23 April, received a suspended prison sentence of six months, 100 hours of community service, £250 costs, and a five-year ASBO for his troubles. Secularists fell over themselves to denounce the verdict, arguing it represented a draconian attack on free speech and, in the words of Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society, the introduction of “a blasphemy law that covers all religions and is much more powerful than the one that was abolished only two years ago”. By this view, the case provides yet more evidence of how our society caves in to religious over sensitivity.

But let’s consider for a moment exactly what Taylor did. On three occasions between November and December 2008, he walked into the prayer room at Liverpool Airport and left posters featuring cartoons mocking religion. He was nothing if not an equal-opportunities offender – one cartoon showed a woman kneeling in front of a priest, another had Jesus stuck to the cross with no-more-nails glue and another showed a pig excreting sausages labelled “Qu’ran”. On the third occasion the airport chaplain found the cartoons and alerted the police — in court in March, she said she was “insulted”, “deeply offended” and “alarmed other people could come in and see these items”.

So who is the victim here, whose rights have been violated? On the one hand we have Harry Taylor’s right to subject religion to criticism and ridicule, on the other the prayer room users’ rights to practice their beliefs free from harassment. Taylor has been convicted of violating the latter, and secularists must ask themselves whether he should have been allowed to do so in order to protect his own right to criticise religion.

In my view the context matters a great deal. If Taylor had been convicted for publishing the images in a magazine, or on a website, where members of the public have the choice not to buy or visit, I would strongly oppose his conviction. But this isn’t what Taylor did – he placed the images in a room provided for the religious to quietly practise their faith, away from public space. He did this several times and deliberately. Why did he do it? He claims that it was a protest about the very existence of a prayer room in an airport named after John Lennon (the man who penned the line “Imagine there’s no heaven”), and a way of expressing his own religion of “reason and rationality”. But is this reasonable? If his aim was to protest the prayer room, and not about offence at all, surely the “rational” way to do this is to take it up with the airport authorities, write a letter to the media or stage a protest as is his right. But given the confrontational nature of the material, isn’t it entirely plausible that his aim was in fact to “harass, alarm or distress” religious believers by making them feel uncomfortable using a room provided precisely to allow them to feel comfortable practising their faith in a busy public building? And it follows that the Chaplain was right to inform the police once she discovered that someone who clearly had no business in the prayer room was leaving this material in public view with a deliberateness that certainly warranted investigation.

For some secular commentators, the airport chaplain is emblematic of the trend towards crying foul at the merest slight to religious sensibilities. Is this fair? The chaplain, when she reported it, didn’t even know then what we know now, that this was the third time Taylor had done it, and that he had significant previous – in 2006 he was convicted for leaving similar leaflets in two Manchester churches, and reportedly he caused a furore in a Tesco by unplugging their sound system because he objected to the Christmas-themed music. Much as we might want applaud someone for cutting off the carols in the supermarket, or being brave enough to challenge Islam, Taylor’s track record and unusual persistence surely marks him out as someone who poses a potential threat to users of the prayer room, the safety and comfort of whom is the chaplain’s responsibility.

It wasn’t the chaplain’s decision to press charges against Taylor — presumably that decision was taken after the police investigated and discovered his form. What then should they have done? Overlook it on free speech grounds, or prosecute as a way to try and stop his inappropriate free-speech grandstanding?

There is plenty wrong with Taylor’s sentence. The terms of his ASBO, for example, ban him from carrying “religiously offensive material” and it is entirely unclear what this might mean (could Taylor be nicked for walking round with a copy of the God Delusion, or New Humanist magazine under his arm?). It is regrettable that the case couldn’t be dealt with without recourse to the law, but by deliberately and repeatedly targeting users of a prayer room, who have basic rights to go about their business unharried, I think it can be argued that he crossed the line between free speech and harassment. In this case, as with other self-styled provocateurs like Geert Wilders, I think we need a well-informed sense of proportion, not because I think religious rights trump free speech, but precisely the opposite. I think we need to keep our powder dry so we are ready to fight the real struggles ahead, the genuine threats to free and public speech — attempts to smuggle in the blasphemy law in by the back door and the use of libel and other legal means to silence the inconvenient truth. Making Harry Taylor a martyr will be no help with this.

Paul Sims is News Editor of New Humanist magazine

Free speech or harassment? Have your say in the comments

20 responses to “Atheists and asbos: What price offence?”

  1. Amnesty says:

    @WAKE UP

    The reason there is a prayer room at an airport is that airports are busy, noisy and distressing places, particularly if you’ve suffered a recent bereavement or similar. Imagine someone who is meeting a relative off a plane and has to inform them of some horrible news. The Liverpool prayer room even contains material for people who would say that they do not profess a faith as such. The point is that is as inoffensive as possible.

    Of course the right to free speech does not extend to an unlimited right to deliberately and gratuitously offend, particularly where there is no redeeming purpose or merit. Pornography is restricted, as is showing it to minors. Public nudity or sexual acts are banned where they are offensive to public decency; offensive untruths spoken about people are slander; “Hate” speech is banned.
    In this case Harry Taylor set out deliberately to cause distress and offence with material which has no redeeming qualities. For a man who claimed as a defence that “reason and rationality” were his religion, there was little of either on display in the material or his actions.

  2. Roy Sablosky says:

    individual adherents of any religion or belief system should be free to practise their belief without obstruction or harassment from those that disagree with them.

    They should be free to practise their belief? What on earth does that mean?

  3. Paul Littler says:

    It is the froth on the brew and all will eventually settle.

  4. Redders says:

    Bah!

    utter nonsense, the man did nothing more than litter. Our country is being wrapped up in the new labour “bigot” culture when our ‘democratic’ process has been swamped with 1 law for every day of the last 13 years of oppression.

    The offensive tripe Peddlers defending this man’s conviction ought to be handed the same conviction for offending freedom devotees everywhere.

  5. WAKE UP says:

    Why the hell is there a “prayer room” at an airport in the first place? Is there a “non-prayer”room for atheists? Are there landing strips at churches? The issues here are much bigger than poor old Harry’s misguided zeal and ridiculous punishment.

  6. SzF says:

    I kind of agree with both of you – “feeling offended” once by a leaflet is not enough to have someone convicted for 6 months. But I agree that a prayer room is not the right place for leaving antitheist leaflets.
    This is just not an issue for a court – he jsut should have been fined for littering, that’s all.

    Another issue: a chaplain should be capable of preventing and managing conflicts… calling the police because you find inappropriate leaflets is an overreaction, so I think the chaplain should get herself a quieter job…

  7. […] Atheists and asbos: What price offence? | Index on Censorship (tags: religion atheism free.speech debate) […]

  8. Uzza says:

    Although I’m in no position to comment on UK laws, I assume any judicial system needs to be impartial.

    If the crime of “causing religiously aggravated harassment, alarm or distress” is on the books, without specifying any particular religion, then Taylor is guilty.
    However, so is a whole set of other citizens including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, street preachers, and people who distress Pagans by driving Hummers.

    By its very nature such a law is unenforceable, as it cannot be applied in a fair and equal manner to all citizens.

    Furthermore an ASBO for carrying religiously offensive material in a public place demands that the law define “religiously offensive”. One would think that past problems with defining pornography would have taught the courts something.

    However, now they will have the added difficulty of not banning most of the world’s religious texts. The Christian Bible is blasphemous to Muslims, the Quran excoriates Christians, and they both offend me no end, so again the only way such a law can be impartial is to be, mmm, nonexistent.

  9. Kirth Gersen says:

    @Brian Jordan: Cannonball Jones got my point spot-on. When I say “in the eye of the beholder,” I mean “entirely subjective” — and hence totally inappropriate for establishing legal action. Where objective standards are lacking, jail time should not be handed out.

  10. Agreed with Kirth – the problem here is the notion many people hold that we somehow have the right not to be offended by anything in the world. That’s simply not the case, there will always be people, objects, ideas,etc out there which offend us, we’re all different, and the best we can do is take steps to avoid that which is offensive. Turn off that nasty evolution documentary, close that hideous sinful Harry Potter book, switch radio station when they start blaring heathen rock and/or roll music and if you see silly pictures in your prayer room just put them in the bin!

    Would you call the cops if you saw someone wearing a t-shirt saying “Religion’s a wee bit silly in this day and age”? No, so don’t do the same for a pamphlet.

  11. Brian Jordan says:

    @Kirth Gersen
    “or to come to the conclusion that “offense” is in the eye of the beholder,”
    Thereby lies the rub. Someone claims to be upset, so someone has to go to gaol. Cultural relativism was bad enough, but now it seems we’ve got cultural absolutism.

  12. Kirth Gersen says:

    So, if I understand Mr. Sims’ logic correctly, any Christian leaving “Good News” pamphlets in the room should be equally subject to criminal penalties, because leaving those pamphlets will certainly harrass the Muslims who use the place. Likewise, the Muslims had best not leave anything. Nor should they try to share the space: imagine, a Christian walks in to pray quietly alone, and some Muslim had the audacity to place a prayer rug on the floor and be salaaming in the direction of Mecca! This state of affairs cannot be tolerated! Clearly, the only solution is to abolish the room entirely… or to come to the conclusion that “offense” is in the eye of the beholder, and that leaving materials that espouse other viewpoints should not be a criminal offense.

  13. […] don’t disagree with Paul Sims on all points, but I do on some. If Taylor had been convicted for publishing the images in a magazine, or on a […]

  14. Brian Jordan says:

    Oops, too furious to spell right! I was referring to the fact that the nail-less glue cartoon had won an advertising award, without anyone being carted off to court, let alone gaol.

  15. Brian Jordan says:

    I can’t believe I’m reading this from the editor of The New Humanist. Are all objectors to religion required to march to the same tune/dogma/doctrine? Harry Taylor may be a bit of a self-publicist, maybe even a bit of a pest in some people’s eyes – but six months in gaol? Because he went into a public room in an airport where you say he “clearly had no business”? And left copies of cartoons cut from Private Eye, winning advertings awards and – ah, maybe here’s the rub – decrying the lack of virgins in the Mohammedan heaven?
    I forgot to renew my subscription, which saves me from cancelling it.

  16. DrBrydon says:

    Paul,

    Harassment is one of those wiggly words that can sound really bad, and mean lots of different things. Like ‘safety’, it can be used to justify public interference in a lot of private matters.

    Does putting an offensive poster or leaflet in a public place constitute harassment? I’d say not. Does having leaflets shoved in your mailbox everyday because someone knows you find them offensive constitute harassment? Maybe, if you could show that you were being singled out. Does having your worship service interrupted by loud rock’n’roll music blasted at your church Sunday morrning constitute harassment? Probably.

    If this fellow was a public nuisance, then the law should treat him that way. Not on a charge relating to the content of the message. That sends the message from the courts that religion is privileged (in the old sense, meaning subject to a private law).

    Certainly this particular instance doesn’t seem to warrant the chance of being bunged up in chokey with his own chamberpot, if, for instance, he can’t pay the fine.

    I am not sure, when you ask whose rights were violated, what rights of the chaplain’s you might be thinking of. It sounds like no one’s right to worship was affected. They got ‘offended’ and ‘distressed’. Who hasn’t?

    I don’t think what this fellow did was right, meaning I think it was rude, and I wouldn’t want to have dinner with him. It sounds kind of aristocratic to suggest that that warrants criminal action.

  17. […] prayer room in Liverpool. Normally, we’d leave it at that. But Butterflies and Wheels has a rather interesting point-counterpoint up between Ophelia Benson and Paul Sims regarding the Harry Taylor case that we think deserves some attention, because both contributors […]

  18. foolfodder says:

    Would someone who left Chick Tracts in the prayer room receive a similar sentence? Should they?

  19. Sili says:

    If I as an atheist had used the prayer room – for some quiet time alone, say – I’d have been well pleased to find those pamphlets. They’d likely have made my day. Don’t my feelings count for anything?

    Of course, for all I know it may be that I’m not allowed to use the prayer room. After all I’m not allowed to use the ladies’ toilets either.

    “Atheists should choose their free speech battles.” – No thank you. I’d rather have them all. I’m not opposing the death penalty only for people who’re innocent, either.

  20. Felix says:

    Paul,

    “For some secular commentators, the airport chaplain is emblematic of the trend towards crying foul at the merest slight to religious sensibilities. Is this fair? The chaplain, when she reported it, didn’t even know then what we know now”

    This makes it more not less the case that she overreacted. She should have just chucked them in the bin.

    “marks him out as someone who poses a potential threat”

    What sort of threat?

    It seems to me that the problem is:

    1) that the specific offence of “religiously aggravated harassment” exists at all.Religion should not be given special rights.

    2) That due to our legal system it is the State rather than the injured party who brings the prosecution.

    3) That he was not prosecuted (if that was the desire of the airport) for trespass or similar.

    However, I think that you are incorrect when you say:

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

    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.