The Injustice of Secular Blasphemy Laws

Eugene Volokh, one of the top experts on free speech in the country, has been using the term “secular blasphemy” to describe laws that prohibit free speech on the basis of some social or cultural taboo that is not explicitly religious. Here’s a great example.

A teenager arrested on Remembrance Sunday on suspicion of posting a picture of a burning poppy on Facebook is being questioned by police.

The 19-year-old was held after the image of a poppy being set ablaze by a lighter was reportedly posted online with the caption: “How about that you squadey cunts”.

Police said the man, from Canterbury, Kent, was detained on suspicion of an offence under the Malicious Communications Act after officers were contacted at about 4pm on Sunday.

What is this all about? Well, poppies are used on Remembrance Day in Commonwealth nations to commemorate soldiers who died in World War I. And this isn’t the first time this has happened:

In March last year, Emdadur Choudhury, a member of Muslims Against Crusades, was fined £50 after burning replica poppies on the anniversary of Armistice Day.

Choudhury had denied a charge under Section 5 of the Public Order Act of burning the poppies in a way that was likely to cause “harassment, harm or distress” to those who witnessed it. But he was guilty of a “calculated and deliberate” insult to the dead and those who mourn them when he burned two large plastic poppies during a two-minute silence on 11 November, a judge at Belmarsh magistrates court said.

This is every bit as absurd and unjust as blasphemy laws. It’s absolutely ridiculous.

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  • eric

    Squadey? UKers explain?

    I heard about this. Initially I thought it was a rememberance gesture. After all, our unknown soldier tombs generally have flames and flower offerings associated with them. Just goes to show you how arbitrary some cultural constructs are.

  • “Well, poppies are used on Remembrance Day in Commonwealth nations to commemorate soldiers who died in World War I.”

    Minor correction while it may have started for those who died in WWI these days its for all the wars and the soldiers who died in them not just WWI.

  • “Malicious Communications Act”??? That’s just silly. Flag burning, protesting military funerals, hate speech, etc., while I don’t agree with these things, I would be against any laws in this country that prohibited them.

  • embraceyourinnercrone

    Hearing about these incidents always bugs the hell out of me. Do the governments that arrest people for doing things that are unpopular not realize the irony of the fact that the people who are being remembered supposedly died for our “freedom”.

    That freedom is supposed to include the freedom to make unpopular, even offensive statements. And I say this from the perspective of someone who served 20 years in the military, married to someone who also served 20 years in the military.

    I may hate what someone has to say, but I will defend to the death their right to say it. The government should not be arresting people for saying something because it might hurt someones feelings.

    However I am not conflating the right to say something in public or on a Facebook page with the “freedom” to be an ass in the comments on someone else’s blog. Apples and oranges, the government is not an individual running a blog. Governments are a lot more powerful, so they need to be careful with their power.

  • marcus

    And we in the US are not immune. The Senate failed by one vote of having an “anti-flag desecration” amendment moved to George Bush’s desk (it has already passed the House many times) and having it enshrined in the fucking Constitution! (Co-sponsored by Diane Feinstein no less.) Do you think they would have been able to find 35 states to ratify? Probably. The forces of fuck-wittedness must be continually fought against.

  • evilDoug

    Squadey? UKers explain?

    I suspect he means squaddie – a member of the squad; a soldier

  • If the kid had vandalized a war memorial monument, that might be one thing.

    But I can’t see how what he did was criminal.

    Uncivil and disrespectful, perhaps, but not criminal.

  • Nick Gotts (formerly KG)

    “Malicious Communications Act”??? That’s just silly.

    The Act predates the (public) internet, and was aimed at “poison pen” letters. It would be reasonable to use it against internet harassers, but its use in this case is a gross misuse.

  • Nick Gotts (formerly KG)

    The government should not be arresting people for saying something because it might hurt someones feelings. – embraceyourinnercrone

    The government didn’t: it’s the police who arrest people in the UK. I detest the current UK government, but there’s no evidence they had anything to do with this.

  • rork

    Let the folks wanting laws against holocaust-deniers see that maybe we don’t want to start down this path. It gets so fuzzy.

  • Is this what inspired it?

    In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

    Between the crosses row on row,

    That mark our place; and in the sky

    The larks, still bravely singing, fly

    Scarce heard amid the guns below.

    We are the Dead. Short days ago

    We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

    Loved and were loved, and now we lie

    In Flanders fields.

    Good propaganda for the victims of the state. “You didn’t die in a pointless argument between inbred scions of the house of Hanover. Oh, no, not at all! Not at Aaaaaaaalll! Besides, um, look, poppies!

    The antidote, of course, is Wilfred Owen.

  • anubisprime

    Blighty seems to have got itself into a bit of a tizzwazz.

    They rushed through loads of paranoid and frankly draconian nonsense after the tube attack.

    The upshot being more then half the legislation got repealed and torn apart by the Supreme court on appeal.

    Now it is uncertain just what is workable and what not!

    Add to that the religio clowns and their constant bleating that everyone hates them and you get hate laws mixed up with terrorist laws and libel laws along with free speech and electronic communications.

    Total chaos really.

    This week is a prime example…

    A kid being a class prat sends a photo of a poppy burning to face book or twitter whatever and the cops get all excited and like a dog with two dicks immediately trace IP addresses etc etc…finally pick him up within 12 hrs and bang him up.

    Same day a ‘renowned’ real terrorist that has sworn in the past to kill Brit troops in sermons publicly and frequently, and urged others on the Internet to do the same, and who is actually wanted by Jordan for murder no less along with innumerable bomb plots, is released from custody to walk the streets, admittedly on a curfew but still…a freeman for want of a better term.

    This cat an mouse nonsense with the law of the land has been going on for a decade or more…the remaining active steaming pile of legislative terrorist debris that was supposed to act quickly and firmly to remove threat from the streets of the UK has muddied an already murky pool.

    ‘Fucking twisted’ does not cover it.

    As I say Blighty has succeeded in hobbling its judiciary by badly thought out hysterical legislation which has given real terrorists a get out of jail card literally.

    So to save their blushes they rely on picking up dozy muppets with dumb porridge for brains and that are easy targets to assuage the public perception that they have laws to deal with nasty wasty terrorists…when in fact they have anything but! …damned cowardly if you ask me, and a disgraceful mess.

    *Squaddie…usually young trainees or privates in the army.

    Term is usually only used by civilians when referring to the young soldiers on leave.

  • @ Marcus

    Yes they do indeed come from that poem.

  • anubisprime

    Marcus Ranum @ 11

    The antidote, of course, is Wilfred Owen

    Yes and then some!

    This one makes me cry every time…but there were so many!


    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

    And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

    Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

    Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,

    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

    And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. . .

    Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

    In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

    He plunges at me, guttering,choking, drowning.

    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

    To children ardent for some desperate glory,

    The old Lie;

    *Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.

    Wilfred Owen

    8 October 1917 – March, 1918

    *(It is sweet and right to die for your country)

  • scienceavenger

    When I first read it, my overworked brain thought it said “burning pUppy”, and I thought well, that makes you a first class asshole, if not a psychotic worthy of a visit from the guys in white coats. But illegal? No way.

    But burning a flower? About as lawworthy as tossing a cracker in the trash…

  • @5

    DiFi is useless. She’s a full-blown authoritarian, all the time, and has been that way for years. She’s never seen an expansion of the security state that she didn’t like.

  • tbp1

    @11 & 14:

    You might want to get to know Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, where he intermingles some of Owens’ poems with the Latin liturgy. It’s a wonderful, deeply moving piece of music.

    There’s a street named after him in south London. I happened to stumble across it when I was hunting for something else.

  • jnorris

    I also like mark Twains War Prayer:

    “For our sakes, who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask of one Who is the Spirit of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset, and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Grant our prayer, O Lord, and Thine be the praise and honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.”

  • markr1957 (Patent Pending)

    #1 Eric – Squadey = typical teenage spelling mistake. As a former British “squaddie” I can report that this is vernacular for any soldier in uniform – in squad formation being the origin. The word squaddie is not insulting in any way, shape or form.

    Now the word that follows is a well known gendered insult but as often as not during training senior NCOs use it to describe themselves, as they use the opposite gendered insult to refer to their subordinates, as in “It takes a c*** like me to make pr***s like you to stand to attention”.

    It takes a lot more than some childish insult from a 19 year old worm to upset a serving or veteran soldier, which is why it was actually some other racist organization pretending to act on behalf of not at all upset servicemen to make the complaint against the kid who burned his poppy.

  • I think the best lines ever written about WWI(and applicable to most other wars) are Kipling’s ‘If any question why we died/Tell them, because our fathers lied.’

  • @anubisprime (#14) — That needs to be put to music, preferably something heavy, and metal-ish…

  • pacal

    Well I would agree that such an act was disrespectful and frankly anyone who does that is a horses ass but legal sanctions!?

    No just call the twerp an asshole and get on withl ife.

  • Fred Salvador – The Public Sucks; Fuck Hope


    No it doesn’t. All that poem needs is to be more widely read and understood.

    The charges of “Malicious Communications” for burning pieces of paper are part of the UK government’s strategy for keeping Britain civil, which apparently requires repressing everyone equally. If some self-proclaimed “Infidels” can be arrested for burning a Koran and pouring beer on the ashes, then in the mind of UK legislators the only way to ensure a fair and equitable society is to arrest people who partake in the newfangled Islamist fad of burning poppies.

    Difference being that, while it may be possible to arrest people for burning a Koran and pouring beer onto it, which is something that white non-Muslims do, we can’t charge them with anything because there’s “insufficient evidence”. Burning a poppy, something brown people do – THAT results in convictions. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

  • Ben P

    @anubisprime (#14) — That needs to be put to music, preferably something heavy, and metal-ish…

    It’s been done.

    A Polish power metal take on Dulce Et Decorum Est

    a Dutch Death Metal Take on it

    And although it’s not even as direct a reference as the first two, Kamelot’s song, Memento Mori makes a clear reference to the poem in its lyrics.

  • scottm

    Emdadur Choudhury?

    The attention whore. Just when i think the man can’t get any more absurd or idiotic…

  • =8)-DX

    £50 fine for lighting an unauthorised fire in a public place – seems pretty appropriate, but I guess if you notify the authorities of your protest ahead of time you shouldn’t be fined that either. On the “blasphemy” side its of course all nonsense, just like this latest case, and the case of the man prosecuted for making a stupid joke on facebook: that law needs to go in the wastebin of legislative history.

  • There are always Poppy sellers at the front of stores and on downtown corners throughout the U.S. every year, around Veteran’s day.

    The poppies are red and I’ve always assumed that they were based on the poppies of “Flander’s Fields” fame.

    Considering the ravages of drug addiction that have been an “unintended consequence” of our military’s blowing the shit out of people we don’t like, maybe they should change it to this one:

  • eamick

    The Senate failed by one vote of having an “anti-flag desecration” amendment moved to George Bush’s desk

    Presidents have no formal role in the amendment process. Once an amendment gets through Congress, it goes directly to the states.

  • Synfandel

    This teenager is not a star speller.

    “Squadey” should be “squaddy”.

    squaddy : UK :: grunt : US

  • 9: Maybe this is one of those divided-by-a-common-language things, but aren’t the police part of the government? It’s not like they are a private entity.

  • gingerbaker

    I am not defending the fact that this guy was arrested – that seems draconian. A small fine would seem more appropriate. But I might defend the aim of the U.K. law here.

    I am assuming that this fellow’s video, his speech, was not deemed to be political speech, which may have been defended by the law. Instead, his video was deemed to be a simple act of needless insult with no redeeming political content.

    And while our U.S. standards for what might be acceptable in the public square are sometimes more permissive, and sometimes less permissive, than the U.K., I don’t see why their overall approach is any less legitimate than our own.

    Ugly but valid political speech is defended. Ugly but useless political speech is not. Ugly non political speech is not defended either. What this guy did was equivalent to using the word “fuck” on prime time U.S. television – not allowed because it was deemed to be in bad taste.

  • embraceyourinnercrone

    So who gets to decide what is valid political speech? An does “valid” political speech get to vary depending which party is in power at the time? Either you have freedom to speak in the public square or you don’t. Having some “authority” somewhere get to decide what is useful or” permissible” political speech, and what is not seems like an invitation to repress unpopular views.

  • Paul W., OM

    The government should not be arresting people for saying something because it might hurt someones feelings. – embraceyourinnercrone

    The government didn’t: it’s the police who arrest people in the UK.

    I think that embraceyourinnercrone was using “government” in the US sense, not the UK sense—which we’d call the “current administration.”

    In US parlance, the courts and all the bureaucracies including the police are all part of the “government,” along with the legislature. But it’s weird because of federalism and localism; we have three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) at each of three levels—federal, state, and local—with current “administrations” in the executive branch at each level.

    So in the UK sense, we have a shit-ton of “governments,” and any given location is usually in the jurisdiction of three of them in different ways. Most “police” are part of the the local executive branch, in departments headed by an appointee of the local mayor or city council. But we also have different law enforcement agencies at the state and federal levels, headed by political appointees of the state governors and US president respectively.

    Which makes me wonder… are local police chiefs in the UK appointed by the national “government” (elected administration), or are they also appointed by local mayors or councils, or what? (I’ve watched enough UK cop shows and political intrigue shows that I’m surprised I don’t know that by now.)

  • plutosdad

    Wait, was Sting fined for “Children’s Crusade” ?

    “poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade, all of those young lives betrayed..”

    seems like that is a similar anti-war sentiment.

  • marcus

    eamick @ 27 Thanks so much, something I should have known. I had assumed that it would be treated like any bill, obviously mistaken. Cheers.