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UK obscenity law: Where to now?

Post-Girls (Scream) Aloud, the written word is safe - for now

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Yet it is the latter that has far greater implications for public policy and freedom of speech. There have now been a number of calls, including one from Jo Glanville, editor of the respected political magazine, Index on Censorship, for such decisions in future to be automatically passed by the DPP.

From the other side, no demands yet for an overhaul of the OPA: though recent claims that extreme porn legislation has been used in instances where an OPA prosecution might have been more appropriate must give pause for thought. Is the extreme porn model of "tick box" obscenity more attractive to legislators and law enforcement?

This case highlights one further aspect of OPA practice – which is the way in which one individual was publicly pilloried, tried by the media, then spat back out jobless and with future prospects impaired. It is his hope that he can now put this episode behind him: future employment may, however, now fall foul of the government’s Vetting legislation, which requires the police to make even non-conviction information available to future employers.

What, then, has this case achieved? Although the author took down the story quickly in an effort to appease the authorities, a helpful proponent of free speech appears to have reinstated it not very much later. The story is still online.

The CPS and Police say that they needed to act because the site was easy to access – which is partly true – and because it was easy to stumble upon. The latter was always far less true and a simple familiarity with how Google works might have saved both bodies a great deal of time.

Ironically, the mass of searches and site hits likely to have resulted from the publicity around this trial will have raised this story in the rankings of many search engines, and made it far more easy to "stumble upon" innocently. This is the same issue the IWF hit when they attempted to block access to what they deemed to be a potentially illegal image of a Scorpions album cover late last year.

Does that mean illegal material should not be prosecuted? No. However, the authorities need to keep in mind that an almost inevitable result of such banning attempts will be not simply to increase interest in it – which has always been the case – but on the internet, to increase the likelihood of it being found accidentally. ®

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