Wednesday, January 27, 2010

thought policing the blogosphere

Seismic Shock is a blog I'd not heard of before today. It concerns itself with anti-Zionist activity and suchlike. They've written some stuff about an Anglican vicar, Stephen Sizer, and apparently accused him of associating with Holocaust deniers.

Two months ago, Sizer reported this to his local police in Surrey. They passed it on to Seismic Shock's local police in West Yorkshire, who sent two officers round to 'have a word'.

Seismic Shock deleted the offending post

"I did it because I felt intimidated," he said. "I felt had to co-operate with the police."

The story has surfaced in numerous parts of the understandably rattled Jewish blogosphere, in one or two places elsewhere due to its implications for freedom of speech in general, and also in the mainstream on the BBC and - thanks to its alleged anti-Israeli content - from Melanie Phillips in The Spectator.

Phillips splutters

Under what legal authority did the police come and feel Seismic Shock’s collar like this? What was the criminal offence he was suspected of committing? Under what authority did they require him to delete his previous blog?

What has happened to the British police when they intimidate a writer for material which other people merely find objectionable?

It's very simple. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 says you commit an offence if you pursue a course of conduct that harasses someone or causes them alarm or distress.

Section 7 makes the low threshold clear:

(3) A “course of conduct” must involve conduct on at least two occasions.
(4) “Conduct” includes speech.

If that wasn't enough, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 amended the law. A course of conduct was already something done at least twice to one person; now it's a crime if done just once to a group of two or more people.

This part of the Act was specifically aimed at protesters. It specifies that it is an offence to harass someone - ie talk to more than two people - if the intention is to persuade them

(i) not to do something that he is entitled or required to do, or

(ii) to do something that he is not under any obligation to do.

The following section makes it an offence to just be outside someone's home if it is likely to alarm or distress them and you're there to try to persuade them not to do something they're entitled to do, or to do something they're under no obligation to do.

It makes trespass an arrestable and imprisonable offence if it's a 'designated site' - ie Crown land or a site that the Secretary of State has designated 'in the interests of national security'. Watch out for that one being applied at power station and airport protests.

The Protection From Harassment Act - which we were told in 1997 was about protecting vulnerable women from dangerous ex-partners - is frequently used to protect vast corporations from people with leaflets and loud hailers.

Judges grant the injunctions after being convinced that protesters are "alarming or distressing" employees, often at emergency legal hearings without the protesters being informed or represented. They can rely on hearsay evidence or statements from police.

Protesters are often unable to challenge the statements, which are sometimes made anonymously. Activists then have to return to court, often at their own cost, to argue for a lifting of the injunction. Protesters can be jailed for up to five years if they break the terms of the court order.

It was the basis of the injunctions granted against SHAC, Smash EDO, Heathrow Climate Camp and at Radley Lakes where Npower had an injunction to protect their alarmed and distressed balaclava-wearing security guards from press photographers. The police take an active role in pushing this solution. For Smash EDO they supplied names of arrestees, even those who'd not been prosecuted. At the Kingsnorth Climate Camp, the police pressurised the power station's owners, Eon, to get an injunction.

Two people complained to police about Seismic Shock's blogpost, so we only needed a single act to be 'a course of action'. It seems to me they have a good case under the Protection from Harassment Act.

Couple that law to our anti-terrorism legislation - if a cop alleges you have been thinking about supporting a group who'd commit serious criminal damage for political purposes, you have to prove your innocence - and anything that offends or obstructs anyone can be covered. All you need is the political will to pursue it.


Matt Wardman said...

Thank-you for this piece, the link, and the extra legal detail which goes beyond that I had researched.

I'll tweet this article tomorrow, and link to you when I do another piece.

As far as I know, there has not been a conviction for harassment through material posted online - the only case I know of was one between ex-partners involving Facebook which was thrown out by magistrates due to lack of evidence.

merrick said...


i don't know of any convictio0=ns for online 'courses of conduct' either.

However, that doesn't mean it won't happen.

Also, convictions aren't the whole story. The existence of such laws lets the cops come round and lean on people, as the Seismic Shock case shows. Nobody was convicted under Section 28 of the Local Government Act for promoting homosexuality, but it had a huge effect on many people's behaviour.