US citizens are protected by the First Amendment, but in the UK there are several additional laws and practices that are designed to protect free speech but are often misinterpreted, leading to censorship. Whether you’re a British artist or an international artist exhibiting in the UK, these laws can be confusing.
In order to help artists better understand British laws and how they impact artistic expression, Index on Censorship has put together resources that tackle some of the most controversial topics and breakdown the laws that every artist should know. Entitled “Art and the Law,” the information packs cover child protection laws, which are designed to stop child pornography, but include non-photographic images among those which are illegal; counter terrorism laws, which are intended to stop the display of materials the might directly or indirectly encourage terrorism; and public order laws, which are rarely used against artists but may be applied if a piece of art or a performance is found to incite riot, fear of violence, harassment, and other public disorder. In late 2015, Index will have resources regarding obscenity laws and laws pertaining to race and religion.
“The police, prosecutors and courts have a duty to defend free speech,” said Index on Censorship Chief Executive, Jodie Ginsberg. “But, as we have seen with [recent] cases… police will go along with a ‘heckler’s veto’ and advise that artistic productions shut down when threatened with protest.”
Misunderstandings of the laws don’t only come from outside organizations and legal parties. In fact, based on a study entitled Taking the Offensive done by Index last year, they found that many artists themselves are unfamiliar enough with the laws that they will censor themselves as a precaution to avoid legal repercussions. According to Julia Farrington, who initiated and led the “Art and Law” project:
Free expression is crucial to the arts. But we have found that too often, artists and exhibitors are unsure of their rights under the law. Our Art and the Law guides will help them approach controversy with more confidence.
Although the packs pertain directly to UK laws, the information is useful for any artist who may be performing or exhibiting in the UK. A number of American and US-based artists have run afoul of British censors, including Neil Gaiman, Melinda Gebbie, Sue Coe, and many more. In case you’re traveling with your art to the UK, we recommend reviewing CBLDF’s own Customs resources.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!