A leading art gallery is being taken to court over claims that it outraged public decency by displaying a statue depicting Christ with an erection….
Other pieces in the show by the controversial Chinese-born artist Terence Koh included models of Mickey Mouse and ET, also with erections. [The gallery, which opened in 2003 after a £35million grant from the Arts Council, included] signs warning of the exhibition’s explicit nature ….
A private prosecution has now been launched …. Legal documents claim that the gallery has both offended public decency and breached Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.
The maximum penalty for outraging public decency is six months’ imprisonment and a £5,000 fine.
The documents claim that the foot-high sculpture was ‘offensive and disgusting’ and ‘likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to Christians and those of other faiths’.
Legal experts said yesterday that the hearing would be the first test of public decency legislation since the Government scrapped Britain’s ancient blasphemy laws in May….
The prosecution has been launched by Emily Mapfuwa, 40, an NHS administrator from Brentwood, Essex, who read about the exhibition in newspapers. ‘I don’t think this gallery would insult Muslims in this way, so why Christians?’ she said….
I think this is pretty vulgar stuff, but should clearly be protected against legal punishment. It would be in the U.S., and it ought to be in other democracies; religions and religious figures are proper subjects for debate and commentary, both rational verbal debate and commentary, and the subtle commentary that can be offered by art.
And I think the Supreme Court was right in Cohen v. California to rejct the argument that some commentary can be barred with no free speech problems on the grounds that it’s vulgar, or offensive because of its form rather than its content: There are no legally administrable lines — at least of the sort that are likely to survive pressure for expansion — that would distinguish impermissibly vulgar criticism from permissible criticism. I hope England courts reject the complaint. (Whatever one might say about the propriety of huge discretionary grants going to galleries that include offensive speech, the issue here is criminal punishment, not withdrawal of funds.)
It also seems to me that this helps illustrate the force of censorship envy. When speech hostile or insulting towards one religion or symbol is suppressed by government action (as has been urged by many in Europe and Canada with regard to the Mohammed cartoons), or by self-censorship in the face of threatened violence, what happens when other groups are similarly offended? Their sense of outrage — and of entitlement to similar suppressive power — is increased, because they are now outraged by the perceived unequal treatment as well as by the original offense.
Then, either the other speech will be suppressed, too, in which the scope of speech restrictions (again, either legal restrictions or restrictions prompted by fear of violence) increases. Or the other speech won’t be suppressed, in which case the offended groups will become even more offended — and then an attempt to prevent offense and maintain social harmony (which is how the original restriction is often justified) will have exacerbated offense and reduce social harmony. That’s true, as I argued, about flagburning bans; and it’s true about bans and other coercive restrictions on insulting representation of religious symbols.