Contempt of court act 1981

In 1981, the British government passed a law called the Contempt of Court Act allowing courts to forbid publication of facts about a current court case, Chapter 49, 4(2) reads:

In any such proceedings the court may, where it appears to be necessary for avoiding a substantial risk of prejudice to the administration of justice in those proceedings, or in any other proceedings pending or imminent, order that the publication of any report of the proceedings, or any part of the proceedings, be postponed for such period as the court thinks necessary for that purpose.

This is a bad law.
One problem with this law is that facts don’t imply any particular conclusion.
Let’s say Peter was accused of raping Mary. A suitable set of facts may be used in a criticism of the idea that Peter didn’t rape Mary. For example, if Peter’s sperm was found in Mary’s vagina, then John had may have had sex with Mary and he may have raped her. John might hear those facts and think that Peter raped Mary.
There might be some other relevant facts that are not consistent with Peter raping Mary. For example, Mary had not been raped at midnight and John left Mary’s location at 11pm and didn’t return. If John heard those other facts and a suitable explanation John might decide Peter is not guilty.
So publishing facts doesn’t force people to reach a particular conclusion. Their conclusion will depend on other facts and the explanations that people present for those facts.
But suppose that John has some bias against Peter. Then perhaps John is eager that Peter should be convicted of rape even if Peter isn’t guilty. Perhaps if John hears a report that Peter was accused he will divide Peter must be harmed regardless of the court’s findings. Or perhaps John will try to get on the jury to get Peter punished. In that case, the reporter isn’t responsible for John’s conduct, so why should the reporter be punished?
Another problem is that this law is open to abuse.
Some particular case may be controversial because it is perceived as being part of a wider problem. People will want to discuss such a case and it may be difficult to find people who are neutral about the issue. But in such cases there is some problem with how the cases are being handled or understood. That problem should be addressed directly by critical discussion. The government may be tempted to suppress such discussion because it has unpopular policies on a particular policy issue. But that is precisely why such a law is bad, the government should have to deal with these issues. The government shouldn’t be forcing an unpopular policy on people because the policy might be bad and even if it is good it hasn’t been properly explained. Trying to suppress such discussion because of a particular trial is dealing with the symptom is not an adequate substitute for dealing with the broader problem.
Another problem is that the government may be corrupt on some issue. Government officials are fallible and some of them are bad people. Some government officials like hurting people. Some government officials like getting money or other goods from people by abusing the law. Some government officials hate particular non-violent ideologies and want to destroy those ideologies and people who hold them. Some government officials make bad decisions in particular cases and want to prevent their mistakes from being revealed. Some government officials take an irrational dislike to a particular person and want to destroy him.
The sections of this law forbidding people to publish material that isn’t a direct incitement to violence should be repealed. Those sections can’t be used in a legitimate way. Any party that wants my vote can have it if they make a credible campaign promise to repeal this law and other laws that are being used to destroy freedom of speech in the UK.
This law is being used by government officials to prevent commentary on particular cases now. It is not a dead letter. I won’t mention the particular cases, but anyone who is interested will know what cases I’m referring to anyway.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

One Response to Contempt of court act 1981

  1. Guilherme Neto says:

    >But in such cases there is some problem with how the cases are being handled or understood. That problem should be addressed directly by critical discussion. The government may be tempted to suppress such discussion because it has unpopular policies on a particular policy issue.

    right. i cant see how that law can have any other intention than to forbid people from making moral decisions about a case.

    a judge will forbid people from speaking in any case where he thinks that a large public will have strong opinions that he disagrees with. otherwise why is forbidding publication optional?

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