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.
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.