Sedition, Obscenity and Blasphemy

What is the difference between sedition, obscenity and blasphemy?

Both ‘seditious libel’ and ‘obscene libel’ are relic criminal offences; whether published in writing or by word of mouth. In Victorian times, statements would have been viewed as seditious or obscene yet are made without batting an eyelid today. Sex is no longer a taboo topic for conversation or in print, for example.

Despite the fact that both these offences are treated as ‘libel’, they differ from other forms in that even if the words are proven to be true this does not provide a complete defence at all. Neither is it a defence for the person to prove that what was said occurred on a privileged occasion and has simply been repeated or summarised in a fair and accurate fashion. With obscene, but not seditious, libel it can be a defence if it is proven that the words were published for some public benefit.

What is the legal definition of sedition?

The legal definition of seditious libel consists of words and statements that, upon publication, are likely to disturb the internal peace and government of the country. Words can constitute seditious libel in a number of ways. The words may bring the sovereign or her family into hatred or contempt; bring the government and constitution of the country into hatred or contempt or bring either the House of Parliament or the administration of justice in the United Kingdom into hatred or contempt.

Alternatively, the words may be considered seditious if they excite British subjects (i.e.citizens) to attempt – other than by lawful means – to alter any ‘matter’ in Church or State by law established. Lastly, sedition includes words that raise discontent or disaffection in the British public or promote feelings of hostility or ill-will between different classes.

How does sedition apply in practice?

In terms of free speech, the above somewhat black-and-white laws of sedition seem at odds with certain values of modern day society. The remedy to this argument is that these laws do not seek to prevent the publication of an honest expression of opinion. Criticisms of the monarchy, Parliament and the State will not be found to be seditious so long as they are couched in moderate terms and constructively advanced.

A famous rejection of an attempt to prosecute on grounds of sedition was when Muslim campaigners took offence to the words of the author Salman Rushdie.

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For more information on:

  • What is the legal definition of obscenity?
  • What is blasphemy and is it still part of the law?