No danger to free speech? the “Seismic shock” incident

NOTE: I revised this post, after further details became available.  I have now revised and updated it again.  I’m beginning to wonder whether this is about free speech at all.

I was idly reading a blog or two while downloading Cramer’s catena, and I stumbled across this, which excited me so much that I felt I had to write.

At 10am on Sunday 29th November 2009, I received a visit from two policemen regarding my activities in running the Seismic Shock blog. (Does exposing a vicar’s associations with extremists make me a criminal?, I wondered initially). A sergeant from the Horsforth Police related to me that he had received complaints via Surrey Police from Rev [Stephen] Sizer and from Dr Anthony McRoy – a lecturer at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology – who both objected to being associated with terrorists and Holocaust deniers. …

The sergeant made clear that this was merely an informal chat, in which I agreed to delete my original blog (http://seismicshock.blogspot.com/) but maintain my current one (http://seismicshock.wordpress.com). The policeman related to me that his police force had been in contact with the ICT department my previous place of study, and had looked through my files, and that the head of ICT at my university would like to remind me that I should not be using university property in order to associate individuals with terrorists and Holocaust deniers (I am sure other people use university property to make political comments, but nevermind).

Now I didn’t know any of the background about this.  Index on Censorship were also interested:

Blogger Seismic Shock, a Yorkshire-based student, received an alarming visit from local police late last year. Seismic … had been heavily critical of Anglican vicar Stephen Sizer on his blog, alleging that Sizer associated with Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites.

On 29 November, he received a visit from local police, who advised him to remove certain posts from his blog. The police officers maintained that this was an “informal chat”, but the blogger, understandably intimidated, agreed to remove his original Blogger site, while maintaining his WordPress blog.

Index on Censorship has made numerous attempts to contact West Yorkshire Police in order to clarify a) under what authority the blogger was visited by police and b) what potential breach of law had been commited by the blogger that warranted such a visit.

I am a non-combatant on the politics in all this.  Indeed it seems this is a matter of politics, pro- or anti-Israel.  But I am definitely a combatant on the idea that the police should come round “for a chat” with bloggers. 

Many people now know the techniques of “lawfare” piloted in Canada and ably documented by Ezra Levant.  It doesn’t matter whether the victim is actually found guilty.  The technique is to hound them through the courts, with endlessly drawn-out (and expensive!) “investigations”.  The process is the punishment.  In consequence, we may look with very nervous eyes at events such as these.  If the police are called out because of our views, who can be safe? 

I was angry, as most of us would be.  I decided to look into this a bit.

UPDATE: The police have now issued a statement:

A West Yorkshire Police spokesman said: “As a result of a report of harassment, which was referred to us by Surrey Police, two officers from West Yorkshire Police visited the author of the blog concerned. The feelings of the complainant were relayed to the author who voluntarily removed the blog. No formal action was taken.

I have also been reading the Seismic Shock blog.  It’s somewhat distasteful.  The general impression is of a campaign of posts designed to smear Steven Sizer and Anthony McRoy, in order to intimidate them from expressing their own views.  This, of course, is also an attack on free speech.  (I am not a combatant either way on the political issues between the two sides).

I find myself torn.  A case of genuine harassment — of net-stalking — is a different matter from issues of free speech.

In the UK, only the rich can go to law.  Everyone else is basically without options.  If someone started a campaign of vilification against me, designed to intimidate me from expressing my views, I would have few options but to go to the police.  It seems that this may be what has happened here.  What else could Sizer and McRoy do?  Material pumping out on the web, designed and arranged to smear them, drip drip drip?

But … I am still uncomfortable with this.  Do we want bloggers being vetted by the police?  Yet, what do I do, if some anonymous swine sets up a hate site directed against me, and designed to ruin my reputation, cost me my job, my career, whatever?  What would you do?  Is this what we’re looking at?

I still don’t feel that we have got to the bottom of all the issues here.  But it is clearly more complex than I first thought.

UPDATE 2:  I’m beginning to get a very bad feeling about the claims about “freedom of speech” being deployed here.  The more I look into this, the more complex it looks.

All of us, I take it, are in favour of free speech online.  None of us are keen to have the police appear if we say something someone else doesn’t like.

But that doesn’t seem to be the issue.  The Seismic Shock blog ran a campaign targeting Sizer and McRoy personally, again and again and again.  Every post was “Anti-semite! Anti-semite!” and so on.  That’s not free speech; that’s intimidation.  The object, plainly, was to demonise these two men, and thereby silence them.  The comments added by others on these posts are often simply hateful.

I have not read through all this material.  A few I have seen, more or less accidentally.  Here he gloats that a sermon by McRoy has been removed by a church.  Here he quote mines that sermon with a lecture delivered in Iran, to accuse McRoy of hypocrisy, insinuating that McRoy shares Madhist views (when he knows that McRoy is describing how these people see themselves).  Here he sneers at McRoy for being polite about the Iranian despot whom he was forced to endure, plainly just out of malice.  Some at least of his allies do the same.  Here’s an example, posted today, in which Mr Sizer is demonized for the fact that some other site had pirated his book!

The funny thing is, I more or less share Seismic‘s views on Israel vs Palestinians.  But I do NOT share his idea that personal intimidation and abuse is a legitimate form of debate.  Still less do I endorse his attempts to ruin the careers of two blameless men whose only crime is to hold a political view — admittedly a mistaken one — with which he disagrees.  Shrieking “Nazi! Nazi!” is just as bad as shrieking “Jew! Jew!”, and indeed tends to be pronounced in the same way and for the same purposes. 

I am certainly in favour of free-speech.  I am NOT in favour of intimidation, or censorship by intimidation, as a means to stifle free-speech.  And the more I look, the more it looks to me as if we are all being scammed.

Did his victims do the only thing open to them, by going to the police and complaining of harassment?  The evidence was clear, and the material — which we have not seen — evidently grossly offensive; and the author made no attempt to defend it but backed down.

I would suggest everyone interested in free speech start looking at what Seismic Shock has been doing.  If I am right, he hasn’t been exercising free speech, but instead has been running a campaign of intimidation, designed to stifle the free speech of Sizer and McRoy. He’s been questioned because this was harassment, pure and simple, rather than a political offence. 

I could still be wrong.  But I have this bad feeling…

UPDATE 3 (26/01/2009): I’m still not sure about this, and have wavered again since I wrote yesterday.  I really, really do NOT want to see bloggers interfered with by the police.  Seismic’s posts may have been incessant but … were they harassment?  Were they intimidation?  Only one side is speaking here, so we must be sceptical.  But …. I don’t know.

A lot of those attacking Stephen Sizer are plainly doing so because they don’t like his politics.  Well, I don’t either; but that isn’t the issue, and it confuses the issue, for me anyway.  Dunno.

UPDATE 4 (26/01/2009): A comment abusing me personally has appeared below, and has been linked to with approval by Seismic.  It’s interesting to see this play out, and how each side behaves.

76 thoughts on “No danger to free speech? the “Seismic shock” incident

  1. Ah, ok.

    Mind you, I thought it was pretty aggressive stuff to be chasing down the university. That sent a shiver through me, I can tell you. But once you recognise that he was effectively posting from there, and they were trying to identify him, what other choice did they have?

    A bit earlier I was thinking about whether Seismic was right to post about the police raid. I think he was. We really need to know whenever a blogger is being censored by the police, legitimately or otherwise. We need to know what (at least in broad terms) is happening. Because otherwise the mechanisms will be abused. We all agree some things are not tolerable (I think Modernity has just admitted that he would censor “racist” blogs). But we need controls over this, or it leads straight to tyranny. I don’t feel we have nearly enough visibility of what is going on here.

    I also feel that in the UK, a right to freedom of speech along US lines is needed, and desperately so.

    Coming back to Sizer, I also read his Wiki entry. (And don’t you hate people who write their own?) But it was thin stuff, I thought. In the end, from that, he’s just a vicar who’s written a few books. I think I would know if he was influential (although I don’t know for sure). I don’t think he is. He’s one side of an argument. Christians have generally taken a pro-zionist line; he feels that they should take an anti-zionist line.

    Dunno, really.

  2. The source I read got their information from here I am assuming:

    http://stephensizer.blogspot.com/2009/09/seismic-shock-one-year-on.html

    It is heartening to know that the various police authorities who have monitored his writings over the past year, do not share his assessment. Having now identified the author as a recent graduate of Leeds University, the authorities there confiscated his computer and have retrieved all his deleted files.

    Please note Roger, you were looking for the BBC article,
    here it is

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/rorycellanjones/2010/01/seismic_shock_when_blogging_me.html

    How am I reading this whole situation? I see holes.

    #1 the BBC reported without speaking to Rev. Sizer.

    #2-I see clear evidence the youth ministry’s Facebook WAS open and now is set to it’s highest setting. Without speaking to Sizer himself, this could be seen as substantiating his claim that Seismic had “infiltrated the church facebook…………” THIS to me is the fly in the ointment of Seismic’s claims.

    #3 the police statement says that Seismic voluntarily removed his blog. OK so he removed his blogspot blog, but the current blog that is up is wordpress, it’s still there now isn’t it? Furthermore, I just ran a check on it and he was running his wordpress blog also at the same time, in fact, here is the first post on wordpress http://seismicshock.wordpress.com/page/34/
    Now tell me, if the police only chatted with him and he agreed to take down his blog, WHY is the wordpress blog which if you take the time to peruse contains all the same material of the blogspot blog still there? Anyone who knows anything about blogging knows that google will take down a blogspot blog a whole lot easier than a wordpress blog can be taken down. WHY is the wordpress blog still up if what the police are saying (which now please note here, try calling any police dept. and depending who you speak to you may get a different story every time)

    #4: BOTTOM LINE, Sizer hasn’t had his say in this has he?
    Seismic has sure gotten a whole lot of attention. IF Seismic was harassing via Facebook, this is DESPICABLE. But take note that Sizer understandably would call in law enforcement and at the same time want to quieten down things to prevent further harassment. Roger, I just don’t think the whole story is here at all is what I am saying, and there are things that don’t make sense.

  3. Hi Aslan,

    We don’t really know what happened. We have only Sizer’s word for it. But I’m inclined to believe it. It’s no easy otherwise to see why the police would care. Sizer just isn’t that important. But if children were involved, access to groups by deception, if letters were being sent, as Sizer alleges, that would interest the police. That’s across the line from discussion into harassment, on anyone’s logic. They were bound to investigate such a complaint.

    But that doesn’t detract from the general concerns about police and bloggers. Once the police get into the habit of monitoring bloggers, however legitimate the reason, we are all at risk. That is the real concern that the case leaves me with.

    There is also the case of Howard Frederic and his blog http://www.sirpeterscott.com, and the conviction for harassment because an Important Man didn’t want to be criticised (if I have that right). That, in many ways, seems a far more troubling case.

    But we don’t seem to be getting any new facts on the Seismic/Sizer story. Perhaps it is time to put it to bed.

  4. Robin,

    I agree with you; the whole story has not come out, and Sizer has not had his say. So we must be very cautious about all this. Just because people say this or that lots of times does not make it true. Also, we need to recall that Sizer’s post claiming Seismic did this or that is just that; a claim.

    That was a good analysis, by the way. It’s important to look for the holes in the stories.

    Rev. Sizer is actually abroad at the moment somewhere in the bush, so he may have something to say when he comes back (although the story is now dying down, and he might be wise not to give it more legs).

    I think Seismic hurt his credibility, with me at least, by over-egging his position and his claims. He is, of course, only a student, and we all were like that once. I’m manfully trying to resist throwing the baby out with the bathwater!

    You know, if we had a constitutional right to free speech, much of this could not happen.

  5. Guys, I have not seen any evidence of a FB message yet only an accusation. What was this alleged message? Sizer has coppers in his congregation, you can see this from his church website, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he used back-channels to get the Surrey Police to contact WYP. I would like to know how the Surrey Police heard about this, in a church or at the local station?

    Sizer is in Africa I looked at his blog and he is blogging from there about his visit. Africa does have the internet.

    My guess is he is happy at all the new attention for his books and his new hero status in the anti-Israel movement.

  6. Hi Aslan,

    I think you make an important point — that ALL this is allegation. We need to keep that in mind. All we know is what people say.

    Seismic also attacked Anthony McRoy fairly aggressively. He’s sent me a statement to post, in which he rebuts the criticisms of Seismic and explains why he supported Sizer in calling the police.

  7. It might help to read Leeds University’s internet use policy vis a vis the BBC article.

    http://campus.leeds.ac.uk/isms/policies/use/internet.htm

    Now:

    “Someone had traced my IP address to Leeds University and the police had spoken to the university and retrieved some files of mine, none of which contained anything which I hadn’t made public. The police then relayed a message from the head of ICT department that I shouldn’t be using university property in such ways.”

    Hmmmmmmm, anyone can gripe all they want to, but as a returning college student myself in my 50’s I had to sign an internet use agreement and tough bunny rabbits if I didn’t read the fine print. Furthermore, AGAIN, if Seismic was initiating a harassment campaign against Sizer from UNIVERSITY computers, tough bunny rabbits for him for getting caught. In addition, as an American I ready about the tough EU anti-Semitic laws in place, not knowing what specific laws the UK has. Roger, could this (in ADDITION to alleged harassment via Facebook) have something to do with Sizer contacting the police (I’m asking basically was Sesimic accusing Sizer of a crime which is punishable in the UK? Forgive me for not knowing the specifics which is why I am asking)

    Free speech is one thing, harassment and libel are a whole different kettle of fish)

  8. Most political activism in uni is done on uni pc’s Robin!

    Seismic did not accuse Sizer of any crime, he challenged his theology and all the nasties Sizer was happy to join with just as long as they shared his hatred of Israel.

  9. Robin,

    Let’s assume for the purpose that everything SS has written in his blog is libel*. Is a case of libel resolved via police in UK? UK, as far as I know, has the toughest (and over the top by all means) anti-libel regulations/laws, but our vicar didn’t resort to courts, he somehow got the police into action. Everything else is secondary. The amazing trick of getting to the “perpetrator” (SS) by his IP address, getting the IT dept. of an university to check and then confiscate the PC etc. – doesn’t it raise a question with you?

    As for the Facebook issue: I understand that now the group’s Facebook circle is closed to outsiders. Before that it could have been an easy (and lawful) step for anyone to join the group and thus achieve the ability to mail all members of the group. You may call it “infiltration”, I would consider it a prank. Whether it is over the top and constitutes an act of harassment – I say it is a kind of harassment. However not a police issue.

    “the police statement says that Seismic voluntarily removed his blog”. Laughable. He did so after being told to do so by a “friendly chatting” policeman.

    If, as you correctly surmise, the “crime” in question perpetrated by SS was using the “UNIVERSITY” (your capitals) computers for non-university purposes, 80% of university students and teachers will be computerless by now if we punish them for same, and I think you are exaggerating a bit in stressing this issue. It’s a flimsy reason for digging SS up and sending the gendarmes to his house.

    As Aslan and Roger agreed, a lot of the story is allegations. With two exceptions: a) the police involvement and b)the raw data that SS have dug up on Sizer’s activities. I think that the focus should be on these two points.

    (*) Which is patently not true. He presented enough damning and precise info on Mr Sizer disseminating links and similar from hate sites, hobnobbing with all kinds etc. Why do you think he didn’t drag SS to courts? Simple – because SS got proof.

  10. Aslan, you are absolutely correct, but again, read the Leeds University internet use policy.

    Let me ask you this Aslan, if Sizer’s allegations are true that Seismic contacted members of his church including children to harass Sizer, would this be something you would think is OK? AGAIN, circumstantially you can see that their Facebook account WAS open, as I have stated, Facebook gives anyone with a Facebook account the capability to Facebook message WITHOUT being friends.

    Two questions: 1) would this be acceptable to you? 2) if it turns out to be true, would it change your opinion of Seismic and his own allegations in any way? (by that I mean his story about the police, etc. and claiming it is only his free speech which is being threatened)

  11. Hi Robin,

    On your specific question: anti-semitism is not a crime as such (I believe). But it has been heavily demonised, although less so in the last 10 years as the establishment shifts towards a definitely anti-Israel policy. UK laws are not yet as oppressive as some European ones (although give it time). So no, Seismic was not accusing Sizer of a criminal offence; merely of Wrong Thinking in a politically correct sense with all the baggage of intimidation that that bears. Such an accusation might cost a civil servant his job, for instance.

    Would everyone go along with that?

    Snoopy; no-one can afford a libel action in the UK unless they are very rich. If Sizer was a rich and powerful man he would undoubtedly have called Carter-Ruck, and — you’re right about the laws — Seismic would probably have been expelled from the university the instant the letter arrived, in a panic. But remember also… Seismic was posting anonymously. Who can sue someone without knowing who they are? So even then, the police would have become involved. In addition, Seismic is a student. He has no money. So what point in suing him for damages? Libel action was therefore not an option.

    But I don’t agree that we should ignore everything except Seismic’s claims against Sizer (I’ve not checked his claims, since I find it terribly hard to care) and the fact that the police were called out. It looks as if there may have been a reason for the police to be called out, and a legitimate one. Stalking isn’t acceptable, and calling out the police to deal with it is. So … we need more facts. What we cannot do is just accept Seismic’s take on it.

  12. It seems obvious to me that Sizer has high ranking police officers in his church and parish, he asked them for a favour. This is why I would like to know how the Surrey cops were initially put on to this.

    If it really happened as you suggest, which I doubt, leaving a comment on an open FB group is hardly stalking. BTW why do you suggest it was his youth group and not a wider church one? Again absolutely no evidence for this.

    If he did do it, as you suggest, well it all depends on the message, what did this alleged message say? If it was not factual or suggested various sexual preferences then I’d not be impressed. But I’d still be even less impressed with Sizer calling the cops.

  13. Aslan, Sizer did not say that a comment was left on the Facebook account. He said this:

    You also gained access to our church facebook account without revealing your identity and then wrote to many of our church family to warn them about me, including children who were, not surprisingly, disturbed as were their parents

    Repeat: then wrote to many of our church family to warn them about me.

    That is NOT a comment, again, he contacted members of that Facebook account directly according to Sizer. CHILDREN Aslan and Snoopy, CHILDREN.

    Since my question was not answered, I will ask it again, if Seismic did this, IS IT ACCEPTABLE to you? This question is asked due to the allegation made my Sizer of this having occurred. Concerning the seriousness of the allegation made-ALL I am asking is if this is true, IF, what would your opinion of this be.

    Fair enough? I hope so, because I am NOT asking you to believe Sizer, I am asking you to answer a hypothetical question.

  14. Robin, you suggesting that he wrote individually to each member of that FB group, why, there is no need if it is a group, all you do is post a comment and all can read it, do you use FB at all?

    When you say children, how old, teenagers, have you heard some of Sizers sermons that they have had to listen to!

    Again Robin it all depends on what the post to the group said.

  15. Of course I use facebook. You need to read the accusation which was made and address whether that would be acceptable to you. Are you capable of reading what he wrote? “then wrote to many of our church family to warn them about me”,

    Additionally, “including children who were, not surprisingly, disturbed as were their parents”

    DISTURBED Aslan. Have you read the internet stalking laws for the UK?

    http://www.wiredsafety.org/gb/stalking/malicious_communications.html

    (b) sends by those means, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, a message that he knows to be false or persistently makes use for that purpose of a public telecommunication system,
    shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or both.

    NOW, answer the HYPOTHETICAL QUESTION, do you think it would be OK for Seismic to contact individuals in this manner, CHILDREN who according to Sizer were “disturbed”

  16. Robin, depends what the message was, if Sizer is telling the truth, if you understand correctly what happened, whether the alleged message was false, or persistently used FB (one message or even two is not persistent), was for the purpose for annoyance or communication of facts.

    The key phrase is “a message that he knows to be false” so we need to know what the alleged message was before we can judge if this law has any relevance at all.

  17. No the key phrase is “sends by those means, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another”

    Now please answer the question vis a vis the allegation that those on the receiving end of these messages were “DISTURBED”
    and the allegation states some were CHILDREN.

  18. Robin this is an unsubstantiated claim and I will not answer your hypothetical question because it is meaningless posturing until the time we see proof to back up this allegation and see the message, then we can judge what it’s purpose was and if it was knowingly false. Until then I’ll leave you to your hypotheticals, it is afterall all you have.

  19. Well well, since you have Motkhe HaCohen over on your haunt (SS blog), or at least he is claiming to be, why don’t you ask HIM is Sizer’s claims of contacting members of the YOUTH MINISTRY FACEBOOK-the ONLY Facebook account the church has, are true. You can ask HIM since someone claiming to be him is over there commenting.

    Double dog dare ya Aslan.

  20. Robin I have a ton of questions to ask him & have started. Hey you can hypothetically double dog dare yourself.

  21. “It might be best to take this discussion over there anyway.”

    Absolutely. We (the bloggers) tend to forget ourselves and use another person’s blog as a debate platform. In danger of flaming too. And we really need more facts, that for sure.

  22. Appreciate it, Snoopy. I do the same of course, but this is actually my personal blog, so all this feels like having people scribbling at the bottom of my diary. Of course I invited some of this, and don’t regret it — free speech is a real problem in the UK — but now it’s washing into vaguer areas, it’s best to do it elsewhere.

  23. Roger,
    Just want to drop you a note to say thank you for hosting this informational exchange on this matter. I too am asking for facts. As for allegations, they are simply that until backed up with facts. However, it is possible, I believe, to hold a conversation concerning the “whatifs” of an allegation in a civil manner. Personally, my feelings are, since I am a former teacher and youth leader, if someone got a vendetta for me for whatever reason that may be, I would absolutely go ballistic if those youths were involved in any way like Sizer is claiming they were. This is the “personal” in why I am asking the question over and over. I also extend my own potential outrage to any and all others who this may ever occur to.

    In “other news”, I’m just totally amazed at your blog concerning your work. WOW is all I can say, I feel like I just stumbled on something I wasn’t looking for but boy life works in funny ways sometimes, you stumble across a gem. Really interesting information you have here Roger that I am going to peruse but am sort of in over my head on since you certainly are an expert. Wish I knew where to start as a complete novice.

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