In late 2008 Harry Taylor was arrested for putting anti-religious leaflets in a prayer room in the John Lennon airport in Liverpool. The specific charge was an Anti-Social Behaviour Order. Here are a few of the images for which he would be going to jail for 6 months were his sentence not suspended for 2 years:
(translation: “Stop Stop! We have run out of virgins!”
Descriptions of others of the cartoons:
a cartoon depicted two Muslims holding a placard demanding equality with the caption: ”Not for women or gays, obviously.”
One image showed a pig excreting sausages with insults to Islam, and others linked Muslims to attacks on airports.
Taylor explained his motivations:
“The airport is named after one of my heroes and his view on religion was pretty much the same as mine.
“I thought it was an insult to his memory to have a prayer room in his airport.”
Taylor, who also claimed the controversial images were “satire” and would not offend anyone, even recited the lyrics from Lennon’s track Imagine.
He admitted being strongly anti-religious, but said people’s faith would have to be “very weak” for them to be offended.
This wasn’t only about standing up for John Lennon though, in 2006 he was convicted of passing out such leaflets at churches:
Taylor had also visited two city centre churches, St Ann’s Church and St Mary’s, known as the Hidden Gem.
Inside he left leaflets including a picture of a monk making a finger gesture with the caption ”Father F****r”.
The prosecutor in the John Lennon Airport case called the images “grossly abusive”. Chaplain Nicky Lees who discovered them said:
I was insulted, deeply offended and I was alarmed. I was so concerned that I rang the duty manager and the airport police. I was alarmed other people could come in and see these items and also feel offended and affronted and I was responsible for the prayer room.
Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, responded to the initial guilty verdict in early March by saying,
This is a disgraceful verdict, but an inevitable one under this pernicious law. It seems incredible in the 21st century that you might be sent to prison because someone is ‘offended’ by your views on their religion. The blasphemy law was abolished three years ago, but it lives on under the guise of religiously aggravated offences and is several times more dangerous.
The cuttings were all from publications that could be bought from any mainstream newsagent: cartoons from Private Eye and scraps of paper cut from various newspapers that were mildly anti-religious in nature. There was nothing obscene or threatening about them. I can see how a religious person could be offended, but not “alarmed”. Offending someone should not justify a prison sentence, far less one of seven years. The chaplain could simply have thrown the material in the bin.
He didn’t cause any damage and he didn’t harm anything, nor was he threatening or abusive. Yet he might still end up behind bars because some Christian has decided they are offended. In a multicultural society, none of us should have the legal right not to be offended. This law needs to be re-examined urgently.
And now, responding to the sentence:
Religiously aggravated offences represent a new kind of blasphemy law, and the professional offence takers in religious communities won’t be slow to exploit this new avenue of restricting criticism and comment about their beliefs. It is time for parliament to reconsider these provisions and remove them from the statute books.
Harry Taylor is unemployed, on depression medication, and “convicted of damage, battery and threatening beahviour in February this year”. His behavior, in my view stems at least as much from an anti-social temperament as justifiable principles and, therefore, he is hardly the poster boy (or pamphleteer) I want representing me as an atheist and free speech defender. But the important free speech cases always concern precisely those whose speech we don’t like. And however rude his pamphlets were, I have a hard time seeing them as harassment. I find many a pamphlet to which I’m exposed by Christians in the city to be rather obnoxious, manipulative, intellectually insulting garbage. I take a special relish in the chance to throw them out wherever I find them or whenever I am handed them. But it’s not criminal harassment—even if the guy quietly leaving the pamphlets out is an otherwise unsavory character.
As to the relative merits of deliberate, provocative blasphemy campaigns, I wrote out some extensive thoughts here on the occasion of Blasphemy Day 2009.