Monday, May 28, 2018

Of free speech and court reporting restrictions

There have been a number of events in the past two years which have made me seriously wonder whether Britain needs an equivalent of the First Amendment to the US constitution to guarantee the right to free speech.

The arrest a couple of days ago of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who calls himself Tommy Robinson, was not one of them.

If you want to have a justice system which conducts fair trials you need to have rules governing people's conduct outside the court building to prevent participants such as witnesses being intimidated. If you have jury trials, you will also sometimes need to impose temporary restrictions on what can be reported to avoid prejudicing actual or potential members of the jury.

Rules like that, which are an essential part of operating on the basis that the accused is innocent until proven guilty have been in place in Britain (and many other countries) for centuries. Almost all serious journalists understand and comply with them.

Note that these rules and court orders made under them DELAY what can be reported until the end of the trial they are intended to ensure is fair and do not constitute a permanent ban on what can be said.

And the last thing which anyone who wants to see justice for the victims of a crime should want is for irresponsible attention-seekers or self-styled "activists" or "reporters" breaking these rules, because if the defence lawyers are handed the opportunity to argue that such actions have prejudiced their clients' right to a fair trial they may be able to get the action quashed or any guilty verdicts and sentences overturned on appeal. Former prosecutor Nazir Afzal has said that this nearly happened because of the actions of far-right activists in the Rochdale "child grooming" case.

Last year in a rape case a Canterbury the judge considered that the actions of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon who was livestreaming events were prejudicial to the right of accused and victims to a fair trial.

She told him

She sentenced him to three months in prison, suspended for eighteen months for contempt of court and gave him some very clear and specific advice that if he turned up at another court behaving in certain ways which might be considered prejudicial to a fair trial for the participants, he would find himself in jail.

Last week Yaxley-Lennon did turn up outside a court in Leeds at which a trial was ongoing, taking and livestreaming pictures, and got himself arrested.

It will become possible for newspapers to describe what happened in more detail when the court case in Leeds concludes. I shall read what they say with interest.

It is, however, reasonable to conclude that Yaxley-Lennon was either deliberately trying to get himself arrested so as to pose as a martyr, or that he has no understanding of the issues involved in running fair trials, and nor do the people who have been demonstrating in London for his release and signing petitions on his behalf.


Anonymous said...

This is why (1) we had the American Revolution and (2) why we have the First and Second Amendment. The US never wanted to be, and never will be, Britain. Carry on fawning over your royals and watching your civilization die, excuse us Yanks for not caring to join you :D.

Chris Whiteside said...

Actually I can think of nothing more British about the American patriots than the fact that they didn't want their society run from London :-)

Chris Whiteside said...

Incidentally the USA also has contempt of court laws - very strong ones.

Anyone protesting at or claiming to be "reporting" on a trial in the USA who the judge considered to be attempting to intimidate witnesses or jurors or otherwise prejudice the rights of the accused and victims to a free and fair trial would also be found in contempt of court and probably end up in the same place that Yaxley-Lennon has.