The Liverpool Daily Post reports a curious incident:
A MILITANT atheist was found guilty of leaving grossly offensive religious images in a prayer room at Liverpool’s John Lennon airport.
Jurors took just 15 minutes to convict Harry Taylor, 59, of leaving obscene material depicting figures from Christianity and Islam, often in sexual poses, in the multi-faith room with the intention of causing harassment and alarm.
Taylor, who labelled himself a “militant atheist” admitted placing the items in the prayer room on three separate occasions, but insisted he was simply practising his own religion of “reason and rationality”.
But he insisted people would only be offended if their faith was “weak” and that the images were meant as satire.
They had heard from airport chaplain Nicky Lees who told of her alarm after finding the images.
She said: “I was insulted, deeply offended and I was alarmed.”
As the unanimous verdicts were delivered, smartly-dressed Taylor simply raised an eye-brow, but showed no other emotion.
Taylor, of Griffin Street, Salford, Greater Manchester, declined to comment after his conviction on all three counts of religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress from November 2, 26, and December 12, 2008. Earlier in the day he had posed for a photographer outside court.
Neville Biddle, prosecuting … revealed Taylor already has two convictions from May 18, 2006 for using abusive, insulting words or behaviour. He told how on that occasion Taylor had left similar offensive material in St Anne’s Church in the centre of Manchester. A postcard he left featured a picture of a monk with his middle finger raised and the words ‘Father f*****’. When he was arrested sexual cartoons were found in his possession.
Sentence is to be given on April 23.
The comments on the article tend to fall into familiar lines. All the atheists claim that the chap is a martyr to free speech and that the trial is a joke, which shows how oppressive religion is (although they say that about any religious activity). Almost everyone else thinks he is a jerk. Few people seem to respect the chaplainess’ complaint of “being offended”.
We can’t quite rely on the reporting, unfortunately. The United Kingdom now has laws which make it a criminal offence to insult Moslems, and are designed to chill any criticism of them. As a result, reporting can be quite strange. BBC news reports frequently report Moslem attacks on Christians in Africa as “clashes between Christians and Moslems”. This particular report smells a bit, in that it refers to insults to Islam very briefly, yet there is no indication of the defendant being charged for insulting Moslems. It’s clear that any attack on Islam was at best incidental.
But, on the facts as given, what do we make of this?
Few of us have a problem with Christians being insulted (if only because it is commonplace). Let people speak their minds, by all means. If someone gets up on a soapbox and yells lying abuse at us, let them. And indeed this is the state of affairs. The same should apply to Islam (although in fact it does not in modern Britain). All this is what we mean by free speech.
We do have a problem when Christians are insulted endlessly by those controlling the mass media, without right of reply. That is very like bullying. Not that the insults are objectionable; but the one-sidedness is. Similarly if Christians may be insulted everywhere, but not permitted to reply, that is not free speech, but bullying.
But do we feel that it is OK to bomb churches (or mosques, or whatever) with material calculated to give the grossest insult to those who worship there? Surely few of us do. I’m not sure whether most of us could articulate why. But I think the point is, not the content, but the place in which it is delivered. The issue is not one of free speech, but the old-fashioned offence of behaviour calculated to provoke a breach of the peace. A charge of harassment does not seem unreasonable.
It seems to be that the atheist was rightly prosecuted, but for the wrong reasons. It is certainly his right to give offence. Everyone should have this right. But not in such a manner as is calculated to lead to public disorder.
If he had displayed this material on his website, in my view he should have been protected by the right to free speech present in every free country. But to shove it in the faces of worshippers in a place of prayer … that is a different matter altogether. It’s not what you do, it’s when and where you do it.
The whole idea that an offence can be “religiously aggravated” is wrong and immoral. This is designed to give certain religions the right to punish their enemies. We all know that Christians are not intended here, of course; on the contrary, this was designed to give Moslems power. It is an extension of the evil “racially aggravated” category, where a crime against me will be punished mildly if at all, but the same crime against an Asian savagely.
This is the element that is unsavoury; the idea that certain privileged groups have the right not to feel offended. The law should not concern itself with feelings, but with facts. It should treat everyone equally, not privilege certain classes of victims. This is the real offence in this story. Punish the guy for what he did, but not for his reasons for doing it.
The same would apply online: stalking someone is objectionable; merely insulting his religion is not.