Friday 14 October 2011

Cults, laws, and free speech

Cardiff Skeptics in the Pub turned a year old on 20th September. The day before - it also being a Monday - we held its birthday party, with crisps, cakes, balloons and two very special guests: David Allen Green and John Dixon to revisit #Stupidscientology.

Thank you @wmjohn for this photo. Are there any more?

It was a good time to be all insane and swoony over the astonishing fact that our baby group had launched a whole year ago - that had been a pretty good day too. Thanks to all the speakers who've been so far: Simon Perry, Ash Pryce, Andrew Holding, Simon Singh, Hayley Stevens, Deborah Hyde, Jon Ronson, Trystan Swale, James Onen, obviously David and John, Rhys Morgan who's every so often had another news snippet for us, and the great comedy cast of July, whose names for which my memory is embarrassingly incomplete. And the people who've helped with lifts and chair stacking and spreading the word, generally being enthusiastic and supportive, and the audience for keeping us going, and the lady who brought along some profiteroles!

Appreciation expressed, to I hope the smiles of those receiving it and not too much boredom from everyone else (Skeptics leaders love it when you visited one of their events!) - we visited the subject that had got John famous. It may look like an idiotic piece of red tape, political correctness gone mad etc on the surface, but the implications were surprisingly sinister.

David has written a brilliantly detailed blog post about it here; I recommend a read. In short, John, in between tweets about what he was up to in London, had tweeted that he was hurrying past a Church of Scientology so the stupid didn't rub off. A while later, a scientology Twitter account began following him. Well over six months after this, someone complained to the council about the tweet, mentioning, I might add, that they thought there might have been two other tweets they objected to but they could now no longer find them on Google. It was a great many months more before his fellow councillors could make the decision what to do. In the end, they did not take it to court, though John gave us the impression that he might rather have enjoyed himself if they had.

John defended himself with great humour and sense: someone having attempted to make him look a bigot, he was able to raise awareness of quite a lot of unsavoury information (links provided by me, not him) about the Church of Scientology that made "stupid" look like the kindest possible description. You might enjoy this video of him standing up to Kirsty Wark, and being much politer than she was in her attempt to make him appear rude. David's knowledge of law gave him expertise in tackling this issue of free speech defense versus "bigotry" accusation, with weapons I would never have thought of - for example, in his criticism of the document by the Ombudsman, he did not mention the author, because "you can't defame a document". John actually skyrocketed to fame whilst in a tedious two-hour meeting. His mobile was switched off, and he had no knowledge that David had brought the case to the country's awareness. When he switched it on, he had 700-odd new followers and umpteen tweets and voicemails waiting for him.

This is of course far from the first time David has got involved with an issue like this. Not scientology, but a case where the law is being treated as a weapon, rather than a means to get justice.

"The Church of Scientology has as much right as anyone else to assert and protect their ultimate legal rights," he writes. "But it is misconceived and illiberal for litigation (or the threat of litigation) to be used by itself as a weapon."

L. Ron Hubbard, who founded Scientology, is quoted as saying:
"The purpose of the [law] suit is to harass and discourage rather than win. The law can be used very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway, well knowing that he is not authorized, will generally be sufficient to cause professional decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly."
In other words, the point is not winning or losing. As Simon Singh found out, even if you win, you have lost thousands, sometimes tens or hundreds of thousands, and years of your life. Very few people in their right mind would take that on if there was any way out. The way out is to back down, to apologise, to retract all your statements, to make out that the individual or organisation suing you has nothing to be ashamed of - and your peers will self-censor their own work, too.

I had something like this happen to me 11 years ago, albeit on a much smaller scale. A boss in whose employment I had been extremely unhappy (the guy I describe at the end of this post, if you're interested) took it upon himself to tell the company treasurer I had said I didn't want to be paid for my last two weeks of employment at his firm - at least, that is what she told me when I telephoned to enquire. When I wrote to the firm to challenge this, I was fobbed off for 3 months (the 3 months in which an employee must begin an industrial tribunal), then suddenly accused of theft on the grounds that I had sent an e-mail to a friend with verbal permission. I was informed that there were 4 logged occasions on which I had been forbidden to use the Internet, and that two other employees had wasted four man-hours searching for any viruses I might have allowed into the company's computers, time I was being charged for.

The charges were blatantly ridiculous, since other employees had routinely used e-mails and often sent them to me, one of my duties was using the Internet, the boss was famous for never logging anything or even being able to use a computer, and he had even claimed that each man-hour cost the company £65 after I had spent the best part of a year daily logging man-hours which were £45. And, as Acas told him, it is illegal to deduct pay from an employee under such circumstances; you have to bring a case against them first. If anyone tried this nonsense on me now, I would laugh in their face. But I was only eighteen, I was extremely poorly, I was inexperienced, and I had spent months being bullied and humiliated by him and had had about as much as I could stand. Now obliged to fight for myself when I was least able to do so, I went to the Citizens Advice Bureau (now being cut all over the place), and although I did not win any compensation I was given back most - not all - of the money I was owed. But it took five months, by which time my sickness had become long-term. He never did drop his threat of suing me. My sickness and the worry that he might do it went on to ruin university for me and whenever I start any new employment I still have an undercurrent of alarm that something like this might happen again. Frankly, if I could have foregone my lost wages and allowed the wrong thing to happen, in exchange for having my health and confidence back, I know which I'd have chosen.

(I would love to name the individual and company that did this - and I bet I'm not their only victim - but sadly, I do not dare do so . . .)

The mere threat of litigation is a massive weapon. For me it was merely "civil action", minor but bad enough. For someone like Simon Singh, or Hardeep Singh, or anyone who someone with as much money as Hubbard had to use the law as a weapon as much as he pleased, the consequences could be much, much worse.

The law, there in principle to do a good and essential thing, can also ruin the innocent. That's why I admire David. He dedicates huge amounts of time and energy, often free, to fighting against that, and defending those to whom it happens.

But that's not the only way the law can be used for personal benefit rather than as it is intended.

A few days ago, Steve Jobs lost his battle with cancer. I've never been able to afford any kind of Apple product, but the effect they've had has really changed things - there's an app for Galaxy Zoo, for instance. The Curious Astronomer and the mother of a special needs child whose life was transformed by Apple have written about that. Sadly, certain people affiliated with Westboro Baptist Church were not so graceful.

This piece of utterly hateful loser-ness circulated the Internet quite a lot shortly after Steve Jobs's death. (She then claimed that God created the iPhone purely so she could insult its founder . . .)

Even though I didn't know much about Steve Jobs, and I'm certainly not an uncritical fan of Apple, I exploded with indignation when I read this. Death hurts. How can anyone use the occasion of someone's death to pick on their relatives? As I've just described, to be kicked when down makes you feel desperate. Why do Jobs's relatives deserve to be made to feel desperate when they're saying goodbye, already knowing the world is watching them?

How, I tweeted, was this kind of harrassment even legal?

I was then immediately challenged by someone I hadn't come across before: Donalbaion, a mature student in Physics. He pointed out that I was arguing against free speech. Simple as that. To deny Westboro Baptist Church the right to harrass the grieving was anti-free speech.

Initially, of course, I was even angrier. Honestly, who would be suffering from a deprivation of their rights more: the bullies, who would be told "No you can't upset these people", or, say, someone who might have to hold a funeral in secret (and therefore deny many others the chance to mourn) if they didn't want to be psychologically attacked? What kind of freedom is it when you can't even have a funeral in peace?

But of course, anger alone isn't much of an argument. What would be the consequence if Westboro Baptist Church was not allowed to exercise its freedom of speech by picking on grieving people?

Donalbaion tweeted me this review of the book "When the Nazis Came to Skokie". In summary: in 1977, Skokie was an area in which a sixth of the residents were Holocaust survivors and their near families. In this very area, a neo-Nazi group wished to demonstrate. The residents fought against this, citing not only the worry that violence might erupt from the demonstration, but their right to live without intimidation from a group who presumably supported the horrors they'd gone through. But on the other hand, to refuse the neo-Nazis a right to protest would violate freedom of speech. The review concludes: "Strum's book shows that freedom of speech must be defended even when the beneficiaries of that defense are far from admirable individuals."

In other words, once someone (say) took out an injunction against Westboro Baptist Church, who else might lose free speech as a consequence? It could be anyone, for any reason. It's just too dangerous.

But that's not the end of the story. All that agonising over human rights, knowing that people are going to be bullied and degraded - that is, according to this piece of writing, precisely what they want us to do. Go and read it now.

Apparently, this is not about beliefs at all. Whether or not they honestly think God agrees with all their statements about who is going to Hell, their aim is that someone else will get angry enough to try and violate their rights somehow. And then they can sue them.

As "El_Camino_SS" has written:
I saw that he was way too calm and collected for what he looked like in the media. I noticed that he never made personal statements against a person, which is verbal assault, and an out against a lawsuit. Also, for a religious fanatic, a group of people who pride themselves on personal attacks, he was running a protest so terribly by the books that I was impressed by it. He will not bait a person, ever. He will not make personal attacks. He will make blanket statements. He will look at a person in the crowd that he thinks is gay, walk over to his stack of signs, pull out the appropriate, well designed, easily read, laminated bright board, and hold it up and loudly proclaim that "gays are going to hell" or some such nonsense, and make eye contact, but he will never cross the line of telling that person that they're going to hell. That would be the part that would screw up the lawsuit. He just wants to get them after him, but wants to appear utterly blameless for damages.

. . . They run too tight of a ship to slip up, and at that point, I realized that the objective of the group was not anything religious at all.
Assuming the above is true - and here I do not claim to know for sure - this seems to me another misuse of law, and it's even more cynical than the type of misuse about which Skeptics here in the UK have heard so much. It's not even, strictly speaking, misusing the law. It's not using archaic silly laws that are set up to benefit the already rich and powerful. It's using a hallmark of civilisation simply to try and get money out of people.

And frankly, I'm not sure if there's anything we can do. With the first type, we can sign the petition to change the UK's outdated and embarrassing libel laws. With this type? We can't change that law, because that way almost everybody would lose their rights, rather than in the above case, where so many would gain them. After all, a civilised society does not remove its welfare state because a handful of people abuse it. And Donalbaion was right to point out that we cannot put free speech to a majority at risk because a handful of people abuse that.

I suppose, in this case, that if anything can be done, it could be a grassroots, done-by-the-people effect. For example, stronger people are less bothered by banners which display the words "God" and "Hate" in the same breath - so a campaign to give people strength in some way. Perhaps similar banners could be waved, saying something like "Civilised people don't target the grieving" - using the Phelps' tactics of blanket statements and never coming across as personal. Just showing solidarity. Bringing a society to a point where it no longer cares. Of course, you good folks in the States may already be doing that; I honestly don't know. My post is about law and free speech, not about any particular church.

And there are things that to some extent make up for the worst. For instance, according to that journalist's post, at least the grieving cannot be verbally attacked, and that these folks only stay for a maximum of 30 minutes. And, more importantly, they are a tiny minority. Take a peep at this Apple store in Chicago (photo taken by Arfon from the Zooniverse). We may not all be Steve Jobs, but if your rights have been violated, in most cases in civilised countries it will only be a few people who've done it, rather than an entire society. Often, most people are on your side.


John Dixon said...

Thanks. I really enjoyed revisiting #StupidScientology with David - and the cake was nice too.

This might be the answer to your question about how to take on bullies like Westboro though!


Alice said...

Ha! That's a good one!

It was so great having you and David over. I forgot to mention you driving David all the way to Bristol what with those stupid trains being the way they are! I must bake some special cookies for our Christmas do . . .

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Beth Kingsley said...

Re: hate speech, people have come up with all sorts of positive, creative responses. E.g.,

Similarly, when bullies harass women at family planning clinics, we provide friendly escorts to support them rather than shutting the "protestors" up.

Donalbaion said...

The way I look at it, we have to make the rules that we would want to live under if our enemies were in charge of enforcing them.

Alice said...

I have a friend who did the escorting at family planning clinics for many years. Two people he knew got shot dead doing it. It's a wonderful and brave thing to do.