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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Belfast Magazine in 'Landmark' Free Speech Case

A potentially landmark Human Rights case resulting from a year-long dispute between Belfast City Council and the free cultural newspaper The Vacuum is due to take place on Tuesday 13th September.

The Council’s demand that the publication provide an apology to ‘citizens of the city’ and ‘members of the Council’ for offence caused in previous issues is being challenged in the High Court by one of the paper’s editors, Richard West, as a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. If successful, this will be the first time, since the coming into force of the Human Rights Act 1998, that a local authority will have been held to be in breach of an individual or organisation’s right to freedom of expression as protected under the legislation.

The legal showdown comes amidst heated debate over the new Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill and its potential to curtail free expression. It also follows the debate about the play Behzti which was closed after violent protests by the Sikh community and the receipt by the BBC of an unprecedented number of complaints about the broadcast of Jerry Springer – the Opera.

The Belfast controversy arose from a single complaint from a member of the public concerning ‘God’ and ‘Satan’ themed issues of The Vacuum published in June 2004. Councillors reacted by describing it as ‘filth’, claiming that it was ‘encouraging devil worship’ and voting 24–12 to withhold an agreed funding allocation of £3,300 until an apology was provided. This prompted The Vacuum to hold a satirical ‘Sorry Day’ in December ridiculing the council’s demand for an apology, but also raising serious questions about censorship and freedom of speech.

In stark contrast to the attitude of the city authorities towards The Vacuum, its publishers, Factotum, have been selected as part of a delegation of artists to represent Northern Ireland at the Venice Biennale this summer. They have also been nominated for the prestigious Paul Hamlyn Award and received commissions to produce new publications in London and Dublin. The paper currently has a circulation of 15,000, concentrated in Belfast where it is available to pick up in cafes, bars, libraries, galleries, cinemas and hotels, and is lauded for making a valuable contribution to cultural life in the city.

The National Secular Society has sent a message of support to The Vacuum.

Published Sat, 10 Sep 2005