Category Archives: Legal

The War on Sexting, and Other Cases of Creeping Censorship

Outside the world of free speech advocacy, most people take the default position that some censorship is necessary and acceptable; that sensible lines can be drawn to keep out the bad stuff without affecting free expression in general. This approach naively ignores one of the great problems with censorship: that it is a tool of power, and once granted censorship powers, the state will almost certainly extend them in directions that could not have been predicted at the start. Thus, any censorship measure is a danger to all expression, and should be greeted with great scepticism.

Sadly, the British people appear to have lost track of this important point. While free expression is protected by the US Constitution, the UK has no such protection in law, and free expression here – especially sexual expression – has been deeply restricted as a result.

It’s not difficult to get the British masses behind new censorship: simply create a moral panic over harm to “women and children” (note that women are not considered to be autonomous adults in such situations). And nothing is better guaranteed to rouse the mob than child abuse.

So it was that in the 1970s, a moral panic (led by the Queen of Panic herself, Mary Whitehouse) over “child porn” led to the Protection of Children Act – which ostensibly existed to criminalise the creation of child abuse imagery. But the law went far further than criminalising abusive imagery: its final wording instead referred to “indecent imagery” – a subjective, moral idea.

In taking the step from child rape to nudity in general, the state sent a message: not that child abuse is wrong, but that the depiction of nudity is wrong, and so the state has enshrined into law an old British attitude – that nudity and sex are synonymous with each other, and naked bodies are dirty and shameful. The law has often been misused – perhaps most famously in 1995 to arrest the newsreader Julia Somerville, and her partner, who had taken photographs of their daughter in the bath. Many other, less famous people, have been branded child abusers and had their lives ruined for taking similar photographs – a victimless crime that upsets the nudity-hating moral attitudes of the British establishment.

The law is also dangerous in defining anyone under the age of 18 as a child. So in theory, a couple aged 17 who take naked photographs of each other – even for private use – can be branded paedophiles and criminalised.

But this is more than just a theory: the law has now been used against teenagers for taking photographs of themselves. A few weeks ago, a teenage girl received a criminal record for sending a topless photograph of herself to her boyfriend. Her boyfriend too was criminalised for having received the image, and in a separate case, a teenager who sent a nude photograph of himself to friends received a caution.

And so a law that was supposedly introduced to protect abused children has instead been used to attack teenagers for enjoying consensual sex lives. It has also absorbed vast amounts of police and CPS resource that could instead have been directed at identifying and rescuing genuine abuse victims. Meanwhile, as we now know, the law did nothing to protect genuine victims of abuse from men in power.

Such is the nature of creeping censorship: laws passed in response to moral panics rarely do what they were intended to do. More recently, as the British censorship state has grown in reach and power, more draconian laws have come into being, and each one covers a far greater scope than promised by the politicians.

The “extreme porn” law is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Introduced in response to the murder of Jane Longhurst (which was dishonestly linked to BDSM pornography), it was supposed to be aimed at avoiding further such murders. Yet, as the law was drafted, it was broadened to include a number of categories of content, including animal porn, for which the vast majority of prosecutions have taken place. Given the broad definition of “possession”, this means that even receiving an unsolicited image is a criminal offence. Recently, two Essex men were found guilty – under a law supposedly designed to protect women from being murdered – for having received an animal porn video via WhatsApp. Although they had not requested the video, and had attempted to delete it, copies had remained on their phones, and they were forced to plead guilty to sexual offences.

And most recently, the “rape porn” law looks to catch far more people who pose no threat to anybody.  The effect of the law is to criminalise consenting adults who enjoy BDSM porn featuring consenting adults.

In each of these cases, a seemingly good cause – child abuse, murder, rape – has been appropriated by the state in order to brand all sexual expression as wrong, as perverted, as criminal. One wonders where the real “perverts” are: at home, watching porn and snapping nude selfies; or in the censorship state, endlessly blurring lines between consensual and non-consensual activities.

Censorship is not something that can be harmlessly introduced to hide “the bad stuff” and leave “the nice stuff” alone. It is harmful by nature, and corrosive to the freedom of everyone. All sexual behaviour risks falling within the remit of Britain’s increasingly draconian anti-porn laws. The state has signalled its belief that all sexual activity belongs at home, in private, behind closed doors, and in the absence of recording devices. And thus, child abusers will cover their tracks and walk free, while consenting adults are branded sexual predators and harassed into taking their kinks back underground.

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Censorship Laws Used To Attack Homosexuals

In September 2011, a man accessed a legal gay porn site from a hotel room’s computer. A subsequent guest saw the site listed in the browser history and (for reasons best known to herself) complained to the hotel management. Six months later, the man was arrested and his computer seized. Police later charged him with making indecent images of children and possession of an image of a child being abused.

This week, the charges were dropped. The images were all found to come from legal web sites and were of young-looking men, but not of children. What is truly bizarre is that the police had not bothered to carry out the most basic checks on their evidence before presenting the case to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Neither had the CPS questioned the poor state of the evidence before deciding to take the case to court. Meanwhile, a man had been publicly linked to child abuse – a slur that ruins lives, whether or not it has any substance.

The case collapsed because the man’s lawyer, Myles Jackman, carried out the basic evidence-checking that the authorities had failed to do, and found that the images came from a site that had retained model identification information under America’s USC 2257 law. Even when he presented this evidence to the CPS, they failed to drop charges for several more months. After two years of having his name dragged through the mud (during which time his father died, never seeing the outcome of the case), the man was exonerated.

Jackman believes there is strong evidence that the CPS uses its powers to persecute gay men. The same appears to apply to the police. Indeed, after homosexuality was legalised, the police continued to raid gay venues, using the Obscene Publications Act (OPA) rather than the previous laws that had allowed them to directly target homosexuals.

In the infamous Spanner case of 1987, police prosecuted gay men who had videoed their sadomasochistic parties. Although their acts all took place in private, and between consenting adults, they were convicted of causing wounding and actual bodily harm; the judge ruled that a person had no right to consent be assaulted (although this ruling doesn’t seem to apply in TV shows like Jackass, which are deemed suitable for UK TV broadcast).

In the 2012 Michael Peacock case, another gay man was prosecuted, this time under the OPA, for distributing “obscene” gay S&M videos. OPA prosecutions usually result in a guilty plea to avoid the publicity and cost of a trial, but Peacock chose to defend himself (Jackman was his solicitor), and was found not guilty by a jury, in a decision that left the very basis of UK obscenity law in tatters.

Also in 2012, Simon Walsh (who is, you might have guessed, a gay man) was charged under the ridiculous 2008 “extreme porn” law, for possession of images of sex between consenting gay men; again, he was found not guilty, but only at the cost of his career and at huge personal expense.

The state, it appears, has not yet accepted that homosexuality is legal. Furthermore, the existence of a series of badly written censorship laws has given the police and CPS the power to harass people at will, whether for homophobic or other reasons. Laws drafted to protect children from abuse,  and to “protect” the public from obscene material (whether or not the public needs or wants such protection) are used as tools of persecution.

The original British censorship law, the OPA, seems to serve no useful purpose. Denmark scrapped its obscenity laws in 1969, yet Danish society failed to collapse. But in recent decades, an endless stream of new censorship laws have been added to the statute books, most of them more illiberal than the OPA, which at least allows the accused to request a trial by jury.

Somehow, most democracies survive without the weight of state censorship power that the British authorities have at their disposal. Indeed, some of these laws would be unconstitutional in the United States. Perhaps it is time to join the dots: Spanner, Peacock, Walsh, as well as this week’s events, as well as many others. Censorship appears to gain us nothing as a society, but it erodes the rights of law-abiding citizens, and especially those of sexual minorities.