Sedition, Obscenity and Blasphemy

The majority of conduct and behaviour that once fell foul of the UK’s blasphemy and sedition laws are no longer treated as criminal offences.

Seditious and obscene libel were relic criminal offences which covered written or spoken words that
were viewed as seditious or obscene. Sedition and seditious libel was a type of libel that incited disorder by showing contempt towards those in political authority. Obscene libel covered publications of material that corrupted society’s morals.

However, these offences were increasingly viewed as an affront to free speech. Both offences, along with sedition and defamatory libel, were finally abolished by section 73 of the Coroners and Justice 2009.

What about obscene publications?

It is still a criminal offence to publish an obscene article or to have an obscene article for publication for gain. The law is set out in the Obscene Publications Acts 1959 and 1964. Publication of such material includes publication by digital means, such as via the internet.

Many types of material published may amount to obscene publications for the purposes of the law. According to the CPS, the most commonly prosecuted material includes bestiality, realistic portrayals of rape, and bondage.

It is a defence if the publication can be justified as “for the public good … in the interests of science, literature, art, or learning, or of other objects of public concern”. A famous example of the successful use of this defence was the acquittal of the publishers of the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence. It is also a defence for a person who can prove that they have not examined the article and had no reasonable cause to suspect that it was obscene.

On conviction, an offender could be sentenced to three to five years’ imprisonment. The offending material is also likely to be subject to forfeiture proceedings.


What is blasphemy?

Blasphemy laws in the UK date back centuries. Blasphemy consisted of words that tended to vilify Christianity or the Bible and were specific to Christianity.

Have blasphemy laws also been abolished?

Yes, the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. They were abolished because it was decided that the blasphemy law no longer served any useful purpose. There had, in fact, been no successful prosecutions since the publisher of Gay News was handed a suspended sentence in 1977 for printing a poem about a Roman centurion’s love for Jesus.

If these blasphemy offences had continued to protect only the followers of one of the religions in the UK, then the country’s law could have theoretically fallen into disrepute because they were potentially discriminatory. The prevailing view was that the offences had fallen into disuse so there was no real defence for keeping the law as it stood.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.