After a 15-year-old boy refused to remove a sign calling Scientology a “cult” at a May 10 protest in London, City of London Police confiscated his sign and issued him a court summons. On May 23 the Crown Prosecution Service stated that there would be no prosecution of the boy.
Liberty is investigating the actions of the City of London Police, and told The Guardian Wednesday that they may decide to lodge a complaint with the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
The City Council of Edinburgh released a statement earlier this week saying they had no objections to the word “cult” being used on signs at anti-Scientology protests.
Individuals from the group Anonymous have held monthly international protests against the Church of Scientology since February, as part of the anti-Scientology movement Project Chanology. The Project Chanology movement began when the Church of Scientology attempted to get a leaked Scientology promotional video featuring Tom Cruise removed from websites YouTube and Gawker.com.
Members of Anonymous were motivated by the actions of the Church of Scientology, and bombarded Scientology websites and were successful in taking some of them down. Anonymous later changed tactics towards legal measures, and held international protests against Scientology on February 10, March 15, April 12, and most recently May 10. Localized protests have also been held in various cities in between the international protests.
The May 10 London protest took place near St Paul’s Cathedral at the Church of Scientology’s headquarters on Queen Victoria Street. The 15-year-old boy’s poster read: “Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult”. City of London Police approached the boy at the May 10 protest and cited section five of the Public Order Act 1986, which deals with “harassment, alarm or distress”. In response, the boy cited a 1984 judgment given by Mr. Justice Latey in the Family Division of the High Court of Justice of Her Majesty’s Courts of Justice of England and Wales, in which Latey called Scientology a “cult” and said it was “corrupt, sinister and dangerous”.
In the actual 1984 judgment made by Judge Latey, he stated: “Scientology is both immoral and socially obnoxious. […] In my judgment it is corrupt, sinister and dangerous. […] It is dangerous because it is out to capture people, especially children and impressionable young people, and indoctrinate and brainwash them so that they become the unquestioning captives and tools of the cult, withdrawn from ordinary thought, living and relationships with others.” The boy told fellow protesters he was not going to take the sign down, saying: “If I don’t take the word ‘cult’ down, here [holding up his sign], I will be either, I think, most likely arrested or [given] a summons. I am going to fight this and not take it down because I believe in freedom of speech, besides which I’m only fifteen.”
When the boy refused to take his sign down, City of London Police removed it, cited him with a court summons and informed him that the matter would be referred to the Crown Prosecution Service. The boy was the only protester who did not comply with the police requests to remove signs which referred to Scientology as a “cult”. According to The Guardian, a CPS spokesman stated that: “In consultation with the City of London police, we were asked whether the sign, which read ‘Scientology is not a religion it is a dangerous cult’, was abusive or insulting. Our advice is that it is not abusive or insulting and there is no offensiveness, as opposed to criticism, neither in the idea expressed nor in the mode of expression. No action will be taken against the individual.”
“The CPS review of the case includes advice on what action or behavior at a demonstration might be considered to be threatening, abusive or insulting. The force’s policing of future demonstrations will reflect this advice,” said a spokeswoman for the City of London Police in a statement in The Guardian.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, voiced concerns about the actions of the City of London Police, as did James Welch, legal director of Liberty. Liberty represented the 15-year-old boy to the City of London Police. Chakrabarti told The Guardian Wednesday that Liberty is looking into the matter and may file a complaint with the Independent Police Complaints Commission if it is determined that the City of London Police has a policy on appropriate wording on protest signs which relate specifically to anti-Scientology protests. Freedom of speech campaigners may also call for a judicial review of the legality of the protest guidelines of the City of London Police.
“Curtailing people’s freedom of speech is a very serious issue and it’s important to know whether this is part of the force’s policy or a decision relating specifically to the Church of Scientology. There is the possibility of a complaint to the IPCC or a judicial review,” said Chakrabarti in a statement Wednesday in The Guardian. “Some people are very easily intimidated and will be put off exercising their right to free speech by the thought that they may face court action over it. We have to defend that right and show how wrong the police were in issuing this summons.”
Protesters in Scotland that routinely gather to protest against the Church of Scientology outside the Scientology center in South Bridge, Edinburgh contacted the City of Edinburgh Council in order to get the Council’s input on using the word “cult” on signs at anti-Scientology protests.
In a statement in The Scotsman on Tuesday, an Edinburgh County official said: “I understand that some of the signs you use may display the word ‘cult’ and there is no objection to this.” The Scotsman reported that a representative for the Lothian and Borders Police said that the Scotland police force had “no issue” with the use of the word “cult” in a peaceful protest. A representative for Liberty spoke positively of the position taken by the City of Edinburgh Council. “The leadership shown by the City of Edinburgh Council’s decision to protect free speech is a positive step,” said Liberty media director Jen Corlew in a statement Tuesday in The Scotsman.
The City of London Police has faced controversy in the past for its close association with the Church of Scientology. When the City of London Scientology building opened in 2006, City of London Chief Superintendent Kevin Hurley praised Scientology in an appearance as guest speaker at the building’s opening ceremony. Ken Stewart, another of the City of London’s chief superintendents, has also appeared in a video praising Scientology. According to The Guardian over 20 officers for the City of London Police have accepted gifts from the Church of Scientology including tickets to film premieres, lunches and concerts at police premises.
Unlike the City of London Police, the Metropolitan Police Service (the territorial police force responsible for Greater London excluding the City of London) has not raised an issue with protesters using placards with similar wording at protests against Scientology, according to The Guardian and Londonist.