To the Committee of Advertising Practice,
We write to you as members of the public who are concerned that the UK’s advertising codes of practice are unduly censorious. They make it difficult to criticise religious and other ideas in the public sphere, and place undue limits on artistic expression.
Offence is too easily claimed and too easily weaponised – and blasphemy laws are used around the world in precisely this way.
What one person perceives as offensive may be very important for another person to say and have heard. Religions in particular are big, powerful ideas. These kinds of regulations take power away from ordinary people and insulate powerful institutions from scrutiny, satire, or artistic depictions.
These codes have the potential to silence well-meaning people, preventing them from exercising their human right to criticise and challenge ideas, whether seriously or through humour. It should be noted that the UK Parliament deliberately chose to protect these very rights 15 years when it abolished the blasphemy laws in England and Wales. The Scottish Parliament did the same in 2021.
History is littered with misguided attempts to forbid ‘offensive’ speech which have silenced those who speak truth to power and given cover to human rights-abusing states that forbid blasphemy with capital punishment.
Since 2015, there has been a major international campaign to abolish these laws worldwide, which has led to the abolition of blasphemy laws in Denmark, Malta, Iceland, New Zealand, Canada, Norway, France, Greece, Scotland, and Ireland. Similar changes are under consideration in Spain, in solidarity with the victims of blasphemy laws in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan.
At a time when people in the UK are more concerned than ever about the erosion of free speech as a result of well-meaning attempts to ‘ban’ offence, the public expects our advertising regulator to do a better job of accommodating free expression about religion.
The Committee of Advertising Practice’s codes for advertising both already get freedom of expression badly wrong, and has been cited in the past to ban adverts and restrict free expression and legitimate campaigns on political and ethical issues.
For example, in 2011, Humanists UK’s campaign for honest census answers, ‘If you’re not religious, for god’s sake say so!’ were refused by advertising vendors for their potential to ‘offend’.
Past Humanists UK advertising like the ‘Atheist Bus Campaign’ (a feel-good non-religious bus advert) would also potentially fall foul. In 2013, a High Court judge cited the Atheist Bus Campaign as one that should not be allowed to run again for this reason. In another example, the harmless image of “Buddy Christ”, from the comedy movie Dogma, was unfairly criticised by the Advertising Standards Agency after it appeared in a Phones4U advert over Easter in 2012.
For more information about the changes, see Humanists UK’s news item about this campaign.
We think it is absolutely right that all public sector bodies, including the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), comply with the Equality Act in full.
But clearly the CAP has misunderstood what the Act requires, and in doing so, are threatening a delicate balance of rights and freedoms. While we should obviously forbid harassment, discrimination, and victimisation in the content of ads, a ban on ‘offence’ is not necessary to do this, and amounts to a restriction on a fundamental freedom to express honest opinions and advertise them freely.