Militant atheist and free speech

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.


10 thoughts on “Militant atheist and free speech

  1. Hello,

    I’ve come wafting over from your comment at ModernityBlog (March 5, 2010).

    Firstly regarding Harry Taylor, well, for what it’s worth I’m an atheist and by and large agree with your analysis and with Taylor having been charged and found guilty. I’m not so sure about “The United Kingdom now has laws which make it a criminal offence to insult Moslems, and are designed to chill any criticism of them.”

    But I wanted also to comment on ModernityBlog’s post, which I can’t do because I’m banned that blog on the grounds of being perceived to be an antisemite. In reality I’m a harsh critic of Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinian question and Israel’s hopelessly racist right of ‘return’ for Jews but not for those who lived there at the time of Israel’s creation, on the grounds of having the mere misfortune of not having been born into the Jewish faith.

    ModernityBlog indeed advocates censorship, also as a contributor to the risible CiFWatch blog, which seeks to suppress opinion on the grounds that that opinion is deemed ‘unacceptable’ (i.e. antisemitic).

  2. Hi Gert, it is every blogger’s right to edit or not publish readers’ opinions. (I have been “censored” on Roger’s blog, but I assure you it was for sound reasons.) The same applies to printed newspapers and magazines. They have the right to decide what to print. Every blog has an owner, it’s his private space. If you enter a hotel or a mall, you have to conform to house rules too, because it is not public space. So if you don’t like the house rules on the internet or the real world, you can always open your own blog, where you can enjoy freedom of speech—unless of course you’re at Blogger/Blogspot. (Google does interfere quite a bit, compared to e.g. WordPress.)

    As a general note: If you criticize Israel’s policies or the racist propaganda of Jewish supremacy or the alleged historical right to occupy Palestine or any of their numerous war crimes in general, you are by definition an antisemite, whether we like it or not. That’s the commonly accepted definition (read: propaganda). Criticizing Israel = antizionist = antisemitic. I’ve heard it oh so many times. But believe me, you’re not the only person slandered as an antisemite these days. If the above politically correct definition of “antisemitism” is true, then the vast majority of mankind is antisemitic.

  3. Charging him for ‘offending’ is dumb.

    Any laws that presumes a mind reading is faulty to the core.

    Maybe charging him for trespassing and distributing material which is restricted to adults would have made more sense.

    The UK Racial and Religious Hatred Bil is a double edged sword. Who will be cut deeper with it, and who will bleed to death from it are the questions.

  4. But why did they put him on trial? Airports are private spaces. You can ban people from them, or bar the guy from entering the interfaith chapel. You can sue the guy for trespass or for disturbing the peace. Heck, you can even just post somebody to pick up his stuff and shred it as soon as he puts it down, possibly in an ever-increasingly pointed manner. (And keeping a weather eye on a chapel is probably something airport security does anyway, just to keep people from practicing “tantric rituals” in a public area of the airport.)

    Hate crime statutes are for serious stuff, not the atheistic equivalents of Chick tracts/p@rn. Sheesh, people left Chick tracts around the Catholic and Dungeons & Dragons folks all the time when I was in college, and we didn’t mount an investigation or demand prosecution. We rolled our eyes, trashed the trash, and got on with life.

  5. You’re all being a bit too ‘sensible’. What we have is a new blasphemy law which will be used by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to – surprise! surprise! – reinforce ‘multicultural’ policies. Last year the local art gallery had on exhibition a statue of Jesus Christ with an erect penis. Some (few) Christians objected: the local police refused to do anything. If this was Muhammad with an erect penis . . . . .???
    Don’t sign up for this new law of blasphemy – let god/God/allah/Allah take his chances – he/she is big enough. And yes: I am a Christian

  6. I think you are right to see past the individual instance to the wider agenda. We risk having officials decide whether we are allowed to say things. This is appalling.

    This evening I see that the “Equalities and Human Rights” quango is dragging the controversial BNP party into court to force it to admit people who hate it like poison as members — effectively to wreck it, and prevent it contesting the election. Such a thing could not have happened five years ago. It could not happen now without government backing. And there is near-total silence. No-one is upset, it seems.

    This is happening just a few weeks before the election here, remember. It doesn’t matter a bit what the BNP is or what they stand for (which, in a democracy, is for the electorate to judge) — indeed this is all about the threat to Labour seats in Northern areas — what matters is that the government is trying to defeat a party, not at the ballot box, but by preventing some people standing at all. That is a horrifying interference with democracy, of the kind we see in the third world.

    We need to be conscious that there are people trying to shut down our liberties on all sides. I’d rather endure a hundred bigots like Taylor, than have some official “protect” me from “offence”. He would quickly “protect” me out of all I own.

  7. Hi Roger,

    Nice comments about the BNP. I think your right, but at the same time we are a democracy and though we vote at elections the silence of a democracy can also indicate opinion. I for one had no problem with the treatment of the BNP. Of course I can’t say how many non-white people will join.

    As for the treatment of Taylor what you say is reasonable. I am continuously offended by religion though. I deal with it through such things as this, online blogging about things i see as injustice. I would not have done what Taylor did. As you say it was intentionally rude. I don’t think inaction based on geographical lines is what is needed though. Saying we cannot take our protests into churches or prayer rooms is incorrect, but it should be done differently. I have gone to church groups and meetings to try and ask questions. Perhaps if he had designed leaflets asking questions about bible verses, or about religious injustices; and where atheists might hold group meetings religious people can do the same. I believe things only improve if we all communicate.

    I am scared by religion. Scared to say what I would like for fear of imprisonment. It is not that I think what I have to say is particularly rude or offensive, but i understand that offence is a personal thing and anyone can take it. If I email my local vicar I have no means of knowing what questions may land me in trouble.

    All this happens at a time when my beliefs and philosophy are called evil and described as causing all of mankinds ill’s (by some – up to the Pope). I drive past churches and see signs condemning me to burn for eternity (perhaps the rudest and most offensive thing normal people can say in everyday conversation). I am accused of being possesed by demons or the devil for my views, which amount to freedom from such things, valuing education and science etc – or for listening to types of music. People want to control how I think, what I say, how I dress and what I eat and I am scared by it. Obviously cartoons are not the way to show that now, but I fear that one day there will be no way to show it.

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