Atheists and asbos: What price offence?
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
28 Apr 10

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