This is a cross-post from the Wardman Wire, looking at the various questions around the Sesmic Shock case, which Paul has mentioned previously. It’s an interesting and very important story, because it touches on politics, religion, law, and police use of that law.
A blogger who writes the Seismic Shock website has published articles critical of a Church of England Vicar, who has complained to the police over ‘harassment’ resulting in the blogger being paid a visit by the West Yorkshire constabulary, and his computer files at his University – who I believe is his emloyer – to be searched. The site linked above is the new one; the blogger deleted the old one “voluntarily” when the Constabulary had a “word”.
The Church of England Vicar is Rev Stephen Sizer, of the parish of Virginia Water. He is a known critic of the State of Israel, and of “Christian Zionism”, and a reasonably well-known controversialist on these questions.
We should also note that there are some statements being made around that would be on the edge of our defamation laws in the UK; see, for example, the introduction to this piece on the Z-Word blog of the American Jewish Committee.
This dispute doesn’t depend on the content of the story, though, and I’m not about to go fishing in the “Pro-Israel” or “Anti-Israel” or “Pro-” or “Anti-Palestinian” pool.
Sizer left her this comment:
You must take a little more care who you brand as anti-semitic otherwise you too will be receiving a caution from the police as the young former student of Leeds did recently. One more reference to me and you will be reported.
Free Speech or Harassment
Paul Bradshaw has the key points summarised well at the Online Journalism Blog:
This is worrying on so many levels:
- A blogger links to evidence linking a reverend in the Anglican church with holocaust denial and antisemitism.
- The reverend complains to Surrey Police, who pass it on to Yorkshire Police, who pay the blogger a visit, during which the blogger agrees to delete one of his blogs.
- In addition, it appears that the police have also spoken to the university which the blogger attends, where the head of ICT “would like to remind me that I should not be using university property in order to associate individuals with terrorists and Holocaust deniers”.
- The blogger eventually chooses to speak up when the same reverend threatens another blogger with similar action (despite them being in Australia)
And he is asking exactly the right questions (updated slightly from Paul’s article):
Why are police getting involved? West Yorks police say it was a claim of “harassment”. Is that all it takes?
Why are they ‘paying a visit’?
Why are they approaching an educational institution to gather information on that person?
Why does that educational institution then get involved?
For context, “harassment” is defined in English Law thus, under the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act:
““Harassment” of a person includes causing the person alarm or distress; and a course of conduct must involve conduct on at least two occasions.”
Where will this go?
This story is likely to run and run, and I think it is important to keep the principles of law at stake here separate from the arguments about Middle East politics and religion.
I don’t think that a published author and controversialist will cover himself in glory by complaining to the police about hostile articles by somebody else. I hope that authors would pay more attention to the principle of freedom of expression. If material is defamatory, then the action should be for defamation. If it is a vigorous argument, then argue back. Note: I have not of course – since it has been deleted – seen all the original content of the Seismic blog.
I think we have a problem with a nebulous definition of harassment, which is being assessed too heavily on the basis of the statements of the victim; some reform is needed.
And, I’m reluctant to say it, but I think that there are so many petty interferences and use of laws to intimidate individuals by different varieties of policemen – the most topical example is photographers – that I think we need to make it almost a principle not to give in to “a quiet word from a Constable”; we need to make our police justify their actions at every point.
I think that it is important to keep the principles of law at stake here separate from the arguments about Middle East politics and religion.