Chilling effect

An editorial in the National Post, a Canadian newspaper, is where I first read that cops in the UK had pressed charges against a fifteen year old boy for carrying around a placard in front of a London center of the Church of Scientology which said – Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult. He was targeted (the Crown Prosecution Service has now dropped the case) using section five of the Public Order Act which criminalizes the display of any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress. Interestingly, a controversy erupted a couple of years ago when it was found that the Church had been sending thousands of pounds worth of gifts to some members of the London police force. Maybe that had something to do with the quick action against the threat to public order.

The Church is notorious the world over for the way it intimidates and threatens dissenters and people writing unfavorable stuff about it. Time magazine did a groundbreaking expose of the cult in a 1991 article – The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power, and the journalist who was responsible for the story, Richard Behar, wrote about his harrowing experiences while doing the story in another article – The Scientologists and Me. The Church sued the magazine in return. You can read more about it in this wikipedia article.

While I am not a fan of religion, organized or otherwise, I don’t mind people doing whatever they want (want to start a new religion around a donkey? you are welcome!) as long as it does not include coercion or any kind of intimidation. If some one assaults someone else, or issues an obvious threat of bodily harm, governments can surely use regular laws to tackle this – don’t tell me there is no law to prosecute someone who assaults me with a stick! The main danger with laws like the one used above or laws related to hate crimes is that they can be used to suppress freedom of speech and expression. The same applies to laws like the US DMCA which has been used by many companies and organizations (including the Church) to suppress information that belongs in the public domain. One significant example is that involving electronic voting machine maker Diebold.

What governments, as also many organizations, have been doing over the years is use law for perverse purposes, thereby indulging in what I term legal terrorism – make people so afraid of being targeted legally that they won’t cross your path again. Given the way the justice system works in most countries, the sheer stupidity and malice that most laws display and the prohibitive cost – financial and mental – of legal defense, people are bound to take the safer route, thereby accepting a severe curtailment of their rights. Ironically, laws that are meant to keep citizens free from predators become predators themselves.

Consider what this Guardian article has to say on the case –

Wiser counsel has since prevailed and the young man concerned learnt today that he is not to be prosecuted after all. But to an extent the damage had already been done. As a lawyer working for Liberty, who is frequently asked for advice by people who have had dealings with the police in the course of a demonstration, I know how easily even minor actions by the police – photographing, asking someone’s name, searches – can have a chilling effect on the right to protest. While the anti-Scientologists may now feel secure in using the word “cult” in their protests, won’t they be worried that they, too, could be prosecuted for some other forceful expression of their views?

Given this state of affairs, it is not surprising then that no newspaper in the bastion of free speech – the US – has covered this story (for proof, try Google News) – it has been totally blacked out.

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  • Abhishek  On May 28, 2008 at 4:54 am

    “Given this state of affairs, it is not surprising then that no newspaper in the bastion of free speech – the US – has covered this story (for proof, try Google News) – it has been totally blacked out.”

    That’s true, and unfortunate. However most of the major blogs (e.g Volokh, Instapundit, Boing Boing) did cover it.

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