Category: Censorship

Copyright and the National Anthem – preventing a tangled future, avoiding another gap of danger

Wilhelmus, via WikipediaA national anthem is a hymn or song expressing patriotic sentiment, from prayers for a monarch, to allusions to nationally important uprisings, to expressions of national feeling. It is usually recognised by a nation’s government as the official national song, though it often emerges by convention through use by the people. “Kimigayo” is the Japanese national anthem, and its lyrics are the oldest text of a national anthem in the world, dating from an anonymous ninth century poem (though the anthem was not formally legislatively established until 1999). The oldest musical setting of an anthem still in use is the “Wilhelmus“, the Dutch national anthem (an early version of which is pictured above left). It was written between 1568 and 1572 during the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule; and, although it was the de facto Dutch anthem for almost four centuries thereafter, it was only officially adopted in 1932.

Given their antiquity, there can be no copyright issues with the Japanese or Dutch anthems. The Irish national anthem, on the other hand, is a different story. In my previous two posts (here and here), I sought to unravel the fascinating but tangled story of its copyright, some of which I discussed on the Marian Finucane show on RTE Radio 1 last Sunday morning (listen here) and on The Last Word with Matt Cooper on TodayFM on Monday evening (listen here). The immediate context of those discussions was Senator Mark Daly‘s National Anthem (Protection of Copyright and Related Rights) (Amendment) (No 2) Bill 2016 (effectively reviving a Bill that he had introduced into the last Seanad earlier in the year).

The chorus of “The Solider’s Song” (composed in 1907; words by Peadar Kearney (1883-1942); music by Patrick Heeney (1881-1911)) was formally adopted as the national anthem in 1926. By the end of the 1930s, the chorus of the Irish language translation “Amhrán na bhFiann” (words by Liam Ó Rinn (1886-1943), set to the Heeney’s music) eclipsed the English language version, and has now completely taken over as the national anthem in popular usage, though it seems never to have been formally adopted by the State. In my previous two posts (here and here), I explored the copyright history of all these versions of the anthem. The stories are tangled, but the position is now quite clear. After two deals – in 1933 and 1965 – the State owned the copyright in the music and English language version (“The Soldier’s Song”) of the national anthem, and this copyright persisted until 1 January 2013. If, as seems likely, Ó Rinn was an employee of the State when he composed “Amhrán na bhFiann”, then the State owned copyright in it until 1 January 1974. If, however, Ó Rinn was not an employee of the State at that stage, then his copyright in it will have persisted until 1 January 2014. Hence, all copyrights in the national anthem have now come to an end. Senator Daly’s Bill would revive at least some of them; and, in this post, I want to explain why I think that this is a thoroughly bad idea. (more…)

The university should be a safe space for the life of the mind – says Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie, via Surian Soosay on FlickrWhile accepting a Chicago Tribune 2015 Literary Award last week, Salman Rushdie robustly rejected the wave of “safe space” censorship that is currently breaking upon college campuses:

The university is the place where young people should be challenged every day, where everything they know should be put into question, so that they can think and learn and grow up. And the idea that they should be protected from ideas that they might not like is the opposite of what a university should be. It’s ideas that should be protected, the discussion of ideas that should be given a safe place. The university should be a safe space for the life of the mind. That’s what it’s for.


Pornography, cyberbullying, and internet regulation PollThe image, left, shows the result of a poll on which ran last Tuesday: the question was whether Ireland follow the UK’s lead in blocking online porn? And the results show a slight majority (54%) against doing so. This comes in the wake of proposals from UK Prime Minister David Cameron to compel internet service providers to block pornographic material by default.

To the age old question “will no-one please think of the children?“, Cameron (perhaps rather cynically) rushes to answer: “I will”:

I want Britain to be the best place to raise a family. … Where children are allowed to be children. … Protecting the most vulnerable in our society; protecting innocence; protecting childhood itself. … I will do whatever it takes to keep our children safe.

Predictably, there were calls for similar Irish developments. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte, has blown cold then hot then cold again on the issue. Writing in, Ashley Balbirnie, Chief Executive of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (the ISPCC), is very critical of Rabbitte’s vacillation, and makes the case for following Cameron’s lead:

… viewing graphic and violent pornographic material online is extremely harmful to children and we believe strongly that introducing such filters in Ireland is an option worth at least some serious consideration.

We have been here before with calls that “something must be done” and doubtless we will be again. But many of Cameron’s legislative proposals may be neither necessary nor possible, whether in the UK or in the Ireland. In the UK, section 63 of the Criminal Justice & Immigration Act 2008 already goes a long way to doing what Cameron said he wants; in Ireland, the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act, 1998 is similar; European Union case-law seems to prevent the kind of filtering upon which the detail of some of Cameron’s proposals rely, detail which it is notoriously difficult to get right. However, beyond the headline, Cameron’s plan is authoritarian and ill-conceived; the reach of this kind of technology can be extended and over-extended very quickly and easily to other content; it will simply drive the already-illegal material further underground; and it probably won’t work in its avowed aim to help children.


YouTube, Facebook, and the responsibilities of intermediary gatekeepers

YouTube logo, via YouTubeIn my previous post, I argued that, as a matter of principle, the controversial American anti-Islamic video should not be censored. The most obvious form of censorship comes from government action, such as legislation banning speech, but that does not arise in this case. Less obvious, but no less insidious, was the White House request to Google to re-consider whether the video breached YouTube rules. This was not a formal ban, and Google declined to take the video down in the US, but it did block access to it in in Egypt and Libya. This raises two important questions about the structure of free speech. First, in the online world, where most of us access the internet through a range of intermediaries, government censorship does not necessarily need to target the disfavoured speech; it need only target the intermediaries. Very few US companies would feel able to decline a request like that from the White House, and Google are to be commended for standing firm in those circumstances. Second, these intermediaries now have a great deal of practical power over online expression – not only can they be co-opted by government as agents of state censorship, but they also have the capacity to act as censors in their own rights, as Google did in their unilateral action to block access in the Middle East.

Such intermediaries are effectively gatekeepers are those who enable – and control – our access to that information, and this raises profound issues of principle about the role of intermediary gatekeepers in the structure of free speech about which I have written on this blog (here | here | here). At present, such intermediary gatekeepers are all private entities, operating to their own rules, and it is not at all clear how they can be made accountable to their users or the wider public for their private actions. Given the practical, social and legal issues that arise in policing content in such a quasi-public sphere (pdf), it has been argued that search engines and other intermediaries should have public interest obligations, perhaps by analogy with common law duties that govern public utilities (pdf). In particular, free speech norms should not only be about protecting speakers against a heavy-handed state but also about protecting speakers and readers against heavy-handed intermediate gatekeepers. (more…)

Assassination and censorship

Ambassador Stevens, via the BBC websiteAssassination is the extreme form of censorship.

George Bernard Shaw

Given my recent post about cross-border hate speech, I was unsurprised to find that freedom of expression is once again in the cross-hairs in the wake of the assassination last Tuesday of J Christopher Stevens, the US Ambassador to Lybia (pictured), and three of his colleagues. The attack seems to have been sparked by a controversial American anti-Islamic movie, and there have been calls for those responsible for the movie to face criminal charges. On the Opinio Juris blog, Peter Spiro [hat tip Volokh] seeks to chart a means by which this might be done in the US without running afoul of the First Amendment, making a point similar to that made by Banks and discussed in my earlier post:

And the First Amendment? Call me a relativist. We have some pretty good empirical data from the scores of other countries that ban hate speech (in part through signing on to article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) that a permissive approach to hate speech is not a prerequisite to functioning democracy. On the contrary, our European friends would argue that democracy is better served by banning such material. Either way, our exceptionalism on this score doesn’t serve us very well.

In particular, he argues that the US Constitution should bend, and has bent, to international law, even when it implicates the constriction of rights (others make similar arguments). Hence, ratification of the ICCPR, and adoption of Article 20, without the existing reservation, would found a basis to limit the First Amendment and allow for the criminalisation of hate speech in the United States.

Mark Movsesian objects on several grounds. First, he points out that a ban on “hate speech” wouldn’t have applied to the movie in question, “which was not likely to incite violence against anyone, except perhaps the film’s producers” (who are still shrouded in some mystery). Instead, Movsesian thinks that the category Spiro is looking to circumscribe “is ‘offensive’ speech, specifically, speech that would offend listeners’ religious sensibilities”, which goes much further than US principles would probably be able to accommodate. Second, he argues that, in practice, a ban on religiously offensive speech would mean a ban only on speech that offends particular segments of Muslim opinion, and he wonders whether American public opinion really is ready for a rule that would forbid speech that offends the followers of only one religion.

We have been here before; no doubt, we will be here again. Whenever there is a tragedy, there are populist demands that something must done; and when the tragedy can be linked – however tenuously – with inflammatory speech, the something that is demanded to be done is often the penalisation of that speech. But this exactly the time when it is important to defend that speech, however hateful it is. Prescribing silence out of fear only engenders more fear, not safety. (more…)

Should galleries and museums display offensive art?

'The Death of American Spirituality' by David Wojnarowicz (1987) from the collection of John Carlin and Renee Dossick, via the Queer Arts siteI have on this blog regularly discussed the extent to which offensive speech can be restricted. For example, there are many (many) posts on this blog on censorship and blasphemy. Furthermore, I have referred to the censorship of Guillaume Apollinaire (here and here), Carolina Gustavsson, Aldous Huxley, DH Lawrence (here, here and here), James Joyce, John Latham, Robert Mapplethorpe and Vladimir Nabokov. Moreover, I have analysed the kinds of reasons why this kind of speech should not be censored: free speech means freedom for the thought we hate, even that of David Irving (eg, here, here, here, and here), Jean-Marie le Pen, or Kevin Myers, and even – especially! – in multi-cultural societies, especially – especially!! – online.

I was reminded of all of this by two recent blogposts. (more…)

It’s long past time to abolish the Censorship of Publications Board

Cover of Huxley 'Point Counter Point' via WikipediaLast month on this site, I posed the question: why do we need a Censorship of Publications Board? It was a rhetorical question; in my view, we don’t need one at all.

The Censorship of Publications Board was established by section 3 of the Censorship of Publications Act, 1929 (also here), with the power (under section 6 (also here)) to prohibit the sale of any book which

… is indecent or obscene or advocates the unnatural prevention of conception or the procurement of abortion or miscarriage or the use of any method, treatment or appliance for the purpose of such prevention or such procurement …

Its procedures are governed by the Censorship of Publications Regulations, 1980 (SI No 292 of 1980), and the Department of Justice website contains the Register of Prohibited Publications of December 2009 (here: pdf). A piece by John Byrne in today’s Irish Times (with added links) not only reinforces my view that we no longer have need for such paternalism, but also gives grounds for optimism that we will soon no longer be subject to it:

What a shocker: no more books to ban

After 80 years of censorship from a board once internationally notorious for its prurience, the last remaining book to be banned in Ireland on the grounds of obscenity will have its prohibition lifted this year, …

On May 9th, 1930, a year after the passing of the initial Censorship of Publications Act, [Aldous] Huxley’s novel [Point Counter Point, above left] became the Act’s first casualty. Banned on the grounds that it was “indecent and obscene”, it earned the dubious historical honour of being recorded as the first entry in the first volume of the Register of Prohibited Publications. Sixty-eight years and 12,491 prohibitions later, The Base Guide [to London] remains the final entry in the register’s final volume. …

In the 12 years since this last prohibition, the Censorship of Publications Board – at one time internationally notorious for its prurience and moral conservatism – has not banned a single title. … Under the terms of the 1967 Censorship of Publications Act, books deemed “indecent or obscene” have their prohibitions revoked after 12 years. With The Base Guide removed from the banned list along with 14 other titles likewise prohibited in 1998, the board’s long war against indecent and obscene books will, effectively, be over. For the first time since formal censorship began, not a single title banned on these grounds will remain on the register.

… the register will not, come December 31st, be entirely cleared of its backlog of prohibitions. There are, for instance, 279 periodicals still listed … [which will] remain banned until their prohibition is successfully appealed, … As far as books are concerned, eight lonely titles stand exempt from the 12-year amnesty that will shortly release The Base Guide et al. This group … will remain prohibited under current legislation that prohibits publications deemed to “advocate or promote” the procurement of abortion, waiting with faint hope for the unlikely day when a qualified party might launch an appeal on their behalf. …

It is very difficult to find official information online about this censorship regime (apart from short entries on the Department of Justice and Citizens Information websites – there is no official website or independent home for the Board, which now resides c/o the Irish Film Classification Office). Our current censorship regime is hidden in the shadows, and is being allowed to decline in obscurity:

Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Perhaps this neglect is because it embarrasses our lords and masters. It certainly embarrasses me. But instead of letting it wither quietly into oblivion, we should have the courage publicly to abolish it. The sooner Fine Gael’s Bonfire of the Quangos does away with this monument to our forefathers’ self-consciousness, the better.

A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit

Milton Areopagitica via DarthmouthThe title of this post is taken from the third paragraph of Milton’s Areopagitica. As I commented in an earlier post, one of the classic liberal justifications for freedom of expression was stated by John Milton (pitctured left) in his Areopagitica – A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England. According to The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor (with added links):

It was on this day in 1644 that John Milton published a pamphlet called Areopagitica, arguing for freedom from censorship. He said,

I wrote my Areopagitica in order to deliver the press from the restraints with which it was encumbered; that the power of determining what was true and what was false, what ought to be published and what to be suppressed, might no longer be entrusted to a few illiterate and illiberal individuals, who refused their sanction to any work which contained views or sentiments at all above the level of vulgar superstition.

He compared the censoring of books to the Spanish Inquisition and claimed that the government wanted “to bring a famine upon our minds again.” (more…)