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yesh omrim

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Blasphemy in the UK

24 February 2006

I keep seeing articles, both in newspapers and blogs, that have something to do with the right to publish images that are offensive to some religion or another. Most of these have such a dog-bites-man quality that they’re not worth passing along1, but Wingrove v. The United Kingdom got my attention.

The United Kingdom has a law against blasphemy, forbidding “any contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ or the Bible”. When The Satanic Verses was published, British Muslims asked that the blasphemy laws be extended to outlaw similar offenses against their religion2. The Home Secretary advised those benighted heathen that: alteration in the law could lead to a rush of litigation which would damage relations between faiths. I hope you can appreciate how divisive and how damaging such litigation might be, and how inappropriate our legal mechanisms are for dealing with matters of faith and individual belief. Indeed, the Christian faith no longer relies on it, preferring to recognise that the strength of their own belief is the best armour against mockers and blasphemers.

Less than three months after the Secretary delivered this paean to free expression, the British Board of Film Classification banned3 Visions of Ecstasy, a short erotic film based on the life of St. Teresa of Ávila, on the grounds that the film was likely to infringe the blasphemy law. After three appeals, the filmmaker’s dispute with Her Majesty’s government reached the European Court of Human Rights, which weighed the film board’s decision against the “freedom of expression” article of the European Convention on Human Rights. Quoth their honors:

The Court recalls that freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society. As paragraph 2 of Article 10 (art. 10-2) expressly recognises, however, the exercise of that freedom carries with it duties and responsibilities. Amongst them, in the context of religious beliefs, may legitimately be included a duty to avoid as far as possible an expression that is, in regard to objects of veneration, gratuitously offensive to others and profanatory…

It’s great when politicians have the courage to tell a hostile audience, “The right of free speech extends to these statements that deeply offend me”. When they say “The right of free speech extends to these statements that deeply offend you”, I’m not so impressed.

1 Fundamentalist leaders use accusations of blasphemy to incite violence! Whoda thunk it?

2 The British blasphemy law is not just restricted to Christianity; it’s restricted to Anglican Christianity. If you want to publish something contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous about the Pope, you’re in luck.

3 To be pedantic: they refused to grant the movie a classification, even a “you must be at least 18 to get within ten feet of this video” classification, and films without classifications from the Board may not be distributed in the UK.

via Crooked Timber