Today I was helping out at the Glasgow NO2ID’s stall in Buchanan Street. As we were packing up, Geraint, the Glasgow No2ID group coordinator mentioned that the police had been called to an anti-Scientology protest taking place further up the street.
I’d noticed the “free stress test” stalls run by the Scientologists earlier in the day, and we were both curious as to what was happening so we went to chat to the protestors. The police were still talking to them when we got there. I was told by one protestor that a “May Day” flag had been confiscated, and that they were being told that the word “cult” was offensive and, if I recall correctly, if they continued to use it it would constitute a “breach of the peace”.
Also, I personally witnessed one of the protestors taking some signs to the bin at the direction of one of the officers. The signs being binned apparently used the word “cult”. Geraint later told me he’d seen a the protestors holding a sign saying “Cult” with an arrow on it which was held so as to point at the scientologists. This was presumably one of the binned signs. The protestors were however allowed to continue their protest, though the were told to make sure they were well over the other side of the street from the Scientologists. I’ll add that the police were perfectly civil towards the protestors as far as I could tell.
However apparently Glasgow police think it is “offensive” to describe Scientology as a cult, or at least were willing to act on the basis of offence caused to whoever phoned them up to complain (most probably one of the Scientologists).
And this episode, along with the recent episode in London (which has had a happy ending thankfully), illustrates why “causing offense” should not be considered a valid restriction on freedom of speech or the right to peaceful protest. People can (claim to) take offence at ANYTHING, including purely factual statements. Not causing offense may be good manners, but you should not be required by law to do so since that allows people to silence those whose message they simply don’t like and to silence those exposing awkward truths.
The Church of Scientology would love to have the power to silence its critics and it seems the idea that causing offence is sufficient grounds to curb someone’s speech or protests is beginning to give them that power here in Britain.