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. The campaigners argued that Rushdie’s words had met certain tests to determine whether words constitute seditious libel such as creating hostility between classes and creating discontent among British subjects, in addition – they claimed – to the further offence of damaging the international relations between Britain and Islamic states.

The prosecution attempt however was rejected by a magistrate who defended his/her decision by mentioning that an integral part of seditious libel is that the action must have been directed against the State, sovereign or Parliament in some way.

What is the legal definition of obscenity?

The legal definition of obscene libel consists of words and statements that would be likely to deprave and corrupt those people who would be likely to read them. Obscene libel originally came under common law. In this form, it was law that if a work was the subject of proceedings relating to obscene libel then no evidence could be brought before the court regarding the literary merits of any such work.

A literary work entitled The Well of Loneliness came up against such charges in 1928. It was found that the book, which dealt with lesbianism, was obscene and indeed evidence as to its literary merit was ruled to be inadmissible by the court in question.

However, the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 put an end to this aspect of obscene libel by replacing the existing common law. A defence was legally introduced for publications that could be argued to be ‘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 Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence.

Up until the Obscene Publications Act of 1964, the laws surrounding obscene libel only applied to those who published so-called obscene works. As a result of this law, it became an offence to have an obscene article for publication for gain.

What is blasphemy and is it still part of the law?

The offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished by a measure in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act of 2008. The definition of blasphemy consists of words that tend to vilify Christianity or the Bible. The aim behind blasphemy being illegal was, as with criminal libel, to avoid the publication of any words that were likely to breach the peace.

If these offences had continued to protect only the followers of one of the religions in the United Kingdom then the country’s law could have theoretically fallen into disrepute. The general view was that offences had fallen into disuse regardless so there was no real defence for keeping the law as it stood.