Freedom of speech, UFOs and The Sun

The tabloid's report of a case involving a UFO cult and the European Court of Human rights was highly misleading.

The Sun this weekend offered its readers new evidence of the lunacy of the European Court of Human Rights. "Euro judges back crackpot cult’s right to promote alien contact", screamed the headline, referencing last week's decision by the court's Grand Chamber in an appeal brought by the Swiss Raelians, who had been banned under municipal laws from putting up posters advertising their UFO-based religion. 

The story went on to denounce the judges for backing the "nutty group's demand to encourage everyone to talk to ALIENS." The court had "upheld their bid to plaster walls with posters urging people to contact ETs" because stopping them would impede their right to free expression, despite the fact that the Swiss Government had "tried to ban the posters on 'moral' grounds as they could cause alarm."

The Sun derided this decision as "the latest twisting of human rights laws by the politically correct judges", alongside the court's earlier demand that prisoners be given the vote, and brings in a UKIP MEP, Paul Nuttall, to complain that the "European judges must be on another planet".

So the Raelians won, right? No. They lost. On all counts. The Raelians' right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention was not absolute, the judgement noted, and could be overridden where it was considered "necessary in a democratic society" or for the protection of health and morals. Although the posters in question were fairly inoffensive - featuring images of UFOs, pyramids and extraterrestrial beings along with the address of the Raelian website - a bare majority of the court (nine votes to eight) nevertheless decided that it was proportionate for Swiss authorities to ban them. (The judgement is available on the ECtHR's website.)

The Sun's story wasn't merely inaccurate. It was the precise opposite of the truth.

A bit of background. The Raelian movement (cult, sect, religion, whatever) was established in 1976. Its founder, Claude Vorilhon - also known as Rael - claims to have been visited by aliens who imparted to him the truth about the origin and destiny of humankind. Human beings and other life-forms on earth were, he was told, neither created by God nor the product of Darwinian evolution but were rather the result of genetic engineering by extraterrestrial beings known as the Elohim. Raelians refer to this as "intelligent design for atheists".

Besides personal meetings with the Elohim, Vorilhon relied on a highly literal reading of the Bible, interpreted as an historical record of UFO contacts. For example, Noah's Ark wasn't a floating zoo but rather a spaceship which contained an extensive library of DNA samples. Jonah was rescued by a submarine. Jesus was the product of artificial insemination using the DNA of the Elohim president Yahweh, which is why he was described as the son of God. As such he had telepathic abilities, and later enjoyed access to Elohim technology, which enabled him to perform "miracles".  Claude Vorilhon himself was conceived in the same way.

Other distinctive Raelian ideas include promotion of human cloning, seen as the means by which human evolution will be taken to the next level, the building of "embassies" so that the Elohim will have someone to greet them when they return to earth, and "sensual massage", which is designed to lead to a state of bliss known as "cosmic orgasm". Raelians practise free love and lead campaigns against the Roman Catholic Church's stance on birth control. Vorilhon also advocates "geniocracy" - a system of government under which no one with an IQ less than ten percent higher than the average population would be allowed to vote, and no one with an IQ less than fifty percent higher than average would be allowed to hold public office. Raelian symbolism is also controversial because it incorporates the Swastika, which the group claims is a symbol of peace.

So yes, the Raelians have unconventional beliefs. In Sun-speak, this naturally makes them "crackpot" and "nutty". 

In the 2001 ruling that the Raelians were challenging, the canton of Neuchatel declared that the group was not protected by the principle of religious freedom because "it was to be regarded as a dangerous sect." The Swiss authorities objected in particular to the promotion of human cloning (illegal in Switzerland) and "geniocracy". They also relied on suggestions (which the Raelians deny) that the religion promoted paedophilia and sexual abuse as well as sexual allegations made in the past against members of the movement. 

The European court found that all this was sufficient to uphold the ban on the Raelian posters. The broad "margin of appreciation" allowed to member countries to restrict free speech in areas involving possible ethical or religious offence, and also in advertising. Although the posters weren't directly commercial, they were indirectly inviting recruitment and therefore might be considered as a form of advertising. As such, the Swiss authorities were perfectly free to restrict them. This is, of course, entirely contrary to the Sun's wilful misinterpretation of the case.

The court found that the ban was not disproportionate since the Raelians were still able to have a website. And of course, there was nothing stopping them from putting up their posters in places where the authorities have not banned them. Perhaps this is why The Sun felt able to lament that "the authorities are now only allowed to stop them from sticking up the images of aliens and flying saucers on public buildings." Needless to say, however, this was never the issue. On the question before the Grand Chamber, whether the authorities could ban the posters on sites for which they had responsibility, the majority decided that they could. 

The result may have implications well beyond the "crackpot cult" of the Raelians. In the UK, for example, the Advertising Standards Authority enforces a code that is notoriously restrictive in matters of "offence". It has banned adverts for such products ice-cream and mobile phones which employed satirical religious imagery, and in the run-up to the 2011 Census the British Humanist Association was forbidden from using the slogan "If you're not religious, for God's sake say so!" The ASA has been accused of not giving sufficient weight to Article 10 rights to free expression when applying the code. The Raelian case, however, suggests that Article 10 rights are fairly weak - certainly much weaker than the First Amendment of the US Constitution - and can be set aside quite easily on the vague grounds of "protection of health and morals". 

A broad application of "margin of appreciation" in Article 10 cases means that campaigners for free expression may get little comfort from Strasbourg. It's not a decision I particularly welcome, especially as the court's majority seems to have been swayed by the unconventional nature of Raelian beliefs and practices. It's true that the Raelians were only banned from putting up certain posters in certain places, but access to public space is itself an important aspect of free expression. 

As the powerful dissenting judgement stressed, Article 10 is "an essential provision" that underpins democracy and that "any restriction of that freedom must be strictly justified by a pressing social need and narrowly circumscribed by relevant and sufficient reasons." Given that the Raelians remain a legal organisation, there seems little basis to restrict them from publicising their activities.

In this case, perhaps, a little more interference from "politically correct" judges in Strasbourg in favour of a "nutty" UFO cult might have been welcome.

 

A Raelian poster from the US. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Photo: Getty
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What are Len McCluskey's chances of re-election at Unite?

The union boss's re-election bid will have far-reaching consequences for the Labour party. 

Len McCluskey has stepped down early as general secretary of Unite, Britain’s largest trade union, in order to stand again for a third term. The contest has potentially far-reaching consequences for the Labour party. McCluskey was elected in 2013 to serve a five-year term; but his supporters hope that the move will allow him to stay in post until the next general election. 

Unite, as well as being Britain’s biggest trade union, is the largest affiliate to the Labour party. That makes it a power player in the party’s internal politics, although their reach and influence is often overstated. It is the GMB, a trade union from the party’s centre, which has dominated parliamentary selections so far in this parliament. “It’s easier for people who’ve met Lisa Johnson [the GMB’s political officer in charge of selection] once in the pub to get selected than it is for Len to get his favourites in,” jokes one trade union official.

That McCluskey is going now and not in 2018 is itself the result of events beyond his control. Assistant general secretary Steve Turner, long spoken of as McCluskey’s chosen successor, is judged not to have  the credibility with Unite’s left flank to win. McCluskey, who is 66, had been trying to overturn a rule barring him from standing again in 2018 due to his age. However, that plan has been mothballed after it became apparent that he does not have the necessary votes among the executive committee.

McCluskey has been dogged by the widespread perception – one that Unite’s press officers strongly deny – that his preference in the 2015 Labour leadership election was Andy Burnham, not Jeremy Corbyn. (In the end, Unite backed Corbyn.)  That matters because in 2013, McCluskey’s strongest opposition came from the left, in the shape of Jerry Hicks, a member of the Respect party who has tried for the top job three times. Since then, McCluskey has been a vocal supporter of Corbyn’s leadership and Unite underwrote much of the Islington MP's second leadership bid. But the perception that he is a fairweather friend of the Corbyn project still lingers in some circles.

However, McCluskey is unlikely to face a well-organised challenge from the left, which would potentially be fatal. 

Who might face him? Hicks is believed to be highly unlikely to mount a fourth bid for the job, while Sharon Graham, the director of organising, is “ambitious but will sit this one out”, say insiders. It is expected that someone from Unite Scotland will likely make a bid. The great hope for Labour’s Corbynsceptics is Gerard Coyne, the regional secretary in the west Midlands. Allies of McCluskey hoped he could be bought off with a parliamentary seat, but he is now all-but-certain to challenge McCluskey for the post.

McCluskey is well-prepared for his bid. Jennie Formby, a close aide and former political director, now serves as regional secretary in the South-East, in preparation for the crucial task of getting the vote out for her boss. He starts as the frontrunner, albeit a vulnerable one. Coyne, for his part, has the advantage of coming from the West Midlands, where the old Labour right – once the backbone of Amicus and its predecessor unions, now merged into Unite – is still strong and relatively well-organised.

But here's the question. Has McCluskey's friendliness with the Corbynite left alienated his members with high-paying industrial jobs, who are not enamoured with the current Labour leader? McCluskey’s allies hope that he has done enough in defending Labour’s policy commitment to Trident to offset his support for Corbyn, who is opposed to the nuclear deterrent. His opponents believe they can successfully link him to the Labour leadership’s opposition to fracking, pharmaceuticals and defence, all of which are industries whose members are represented by Unite.

This election matters within the Labour party because Unite has multiples votes on its ruling national executive committee, and on the conference floor. It is also keen to put forward Unite-backed parliamentary candidates. So whether Len McCluskey serves another term could change the direction of British politics. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.