As noted here earlier this week, blogger Joseph Weissman has been reported to the police for ‘harassment’, after maintaining a website dedicated to scrutinising a Church of England vicar.
Rev Stephen Sizer, of the parish of Virginia Water, lodged a complaint about the site and its author was visited by the West Yorkshire police. The police report states that officers “had a word”, and as a result Weissman “voluntarily removed the blog concerned”.
Rev Sizer is a well-known, published critic of the State of Israel and of “Christian Zionism”. There are legal, religious and political aspects to the story; and related posts are being summarised and collated at Modernity Blog.
This is the short police statement given to Index on Censorship:
As a result of a report of harassment, which was referred to us by Surrey Police, two officers from West Yorkshire Police visited the author of the blog concerned. The feelings of the complainant were relayed to the author who voluntarily removed the blog. No formal action was taken.
Harassment is defined in English Law by the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act :
Harassment of a person includes causing the person alarm or distress; and a course of conduct must involve conduct on at least two occasions.
In a case of ‘harassment via Facebook’ two years ago, Michael Hurst was brought to trial for allegedly contacting his ex-girlfriend Sophie Sladden online, but he was cleared by Magistrates in Birmingham after the prosecution failed to prove the charge.
The definition of harassment above is deliberately wide-ranging, as it was introduced with the main aim of facilitating action in cases of domestic harassment. Is this law being used appropriately?
For the media and for bloggers, a harassment complaint in circumstances where there has been no documented physical threat or alleged ‘stalking’ incident is worrying.
The police have approached the Weissman’s university and spoken to the head of ICT.
Weissman deleted his website without any formal charges being brought, an action which a professional journalist may not have taken without at least obtaining legal advice. As non-professional and independent reporters develop a more significant place in the media, how do we ensure that their position is not compromised, and what responsibilities should they take on in return?
And, finally, is this an acceptable application of the 1997 Harassment Act?