Anti-Scientology campaigners are up in arms after it emerged that City of London police issued a court summons to a teenager for displaying a sign that branded the Hollywood-bothering, UFO-fancying sect a "cult".
The incident occurred on 10 May outside Scientology's controversial Square Mile headquarters, at a rally spearheaded by the online activist movement Anonymous. The unnamed GCSE student involved posted a request for advice the next day to the anti-Scientology messages boards at Enturbulation.org.
His sign read: "Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult."
Within five minutes of arriving, the teenager was approached by a female police officer and told he was not allowed to use the word "cult" to describe Scientology, and that the Inspector in charge would make a decision. Soon afterwards officers again approached, read Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and handed him this notice.
The Act makes it an offence to display "any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby".
In response, the teenager quoted back a High Court judgement from 1984. Justice Latey repeatedly said in a family division case that Scientology was a "cult" - one that was "immoral", "socially obnoxious", "corrupt", "sinister" and "dangerous". The full judgement is here.
The City of London police again approached the protestor 30 minutes later to serve notice of a court summons, and to confiscate the sign.
No date was given on the summons. The protestor wrote that he believes it "could be a few weeks, could be a few months". He has contacted the civil rights group Liberty for legal representation if it's required.
City of London Police gave us this statement:
City of London police had received complaints about demonstrators using the words 'cult' and 'Scientology kills' during protests against the Church of Scientology on Saturday 10 May.
Following advice from the Crown Prosecution Service some demonstrators were warned verbally and in writing that their signs breached section five of the Public Order Act 1986.
One demonstrator, a juvenile, continued to display a placard despite police warnings and was reported for an offence under section five. A file on the case will be sent to the CPS.
The City of London Scientology building opened in 2006. The financial district's police force was heavily criticised at the time for their apparent endorsement of the sect. Kevin Hurley, the force's Chief Superintendent praised its work for bringing "positive good" at the opening of the multimillion-pound site, and it later emerged that officers had accepted hospitality from Scientology, including tickets to film premieres, lunches and concerts at police premises. The organisation also made donations of thousands of pounds to the City of London Children's Charity
Posters on Enturbulation.org raged at City police's latest action on the Scientology controversy. "I cannot believe they have the audacity to pull this stunt," charged one campaigner. "It's the right of every person on this goddamn planet to question the beliefs and structure of everything and anything."
Another wrote: "I am a Brighton anon, and I am tempted to come to London next protest just so I can wave the largest CULT sign they have ever seen. I am a massive advocate of free speech."
In a further statement sent to us today, City of London Chief Superintendent Rob Bastable said: "City of London Police upholds the right to demonstrate lawfully, but we have to balance that with the rights of all sections of the community not to be alarmed, distressed or harassed as a result of others' actions."
Scientology describes itself as a "religion", and calls those who oppose it "bigots". The UK government does not classify it as a religion, however, and its application for charitable status in 1999 was rejected, although it is tax-exempt as a non-profit. Why it would choose to be headquartered at the heart of the UK's richest square mile is therefore beyond us.