We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Freedom of speech? How about freedom to read?

In some countries an interest in ideas, and history, even quite recent history, can get you arbitrarily arrested. It can happen even if you are an academic whose research is being paid for by the government of the country.

On Tuesday they [the police] read me a statement confirming it was an illegal document which shouldn’t be used for research purposes. To this day no one has ever clarified that point. They released me. I was shaking violently, I fell against the wall, then on the floor and I just cried.

What sort of place has ‘illegal documents’? And how would you get one? In this case the document obtained by the masters student in question was published by the US government, and simply downloaded from an official website.

– China? Russia?

In the country concerned, the term ‘illegal document’ does not actually appear in any legislation. It is not, in theory, illegal merely to possess any document there – except for some unusually broad and harsh laws about indecent images. What sort of place is it that the police make up the law as they go along, and threaten academics for having the intention to read about the subject they are studying?

– Saudi Arabia? Egypt? No. The country concerned is the United Kingdom; the place Nottingham, in England. Read a report here. There is more in the printed version of the paper, including these chilling words from Nottinghamshire police:

We deliberately kept it low-key and have never sought to raise the profile of these two individuals or of this case.

We are supposed to be grateful that an unofficial police PR machine did not immediately set out to blacken the detainees’ names by making a fuss about their arrest, nor misrepresent what happened during it, nor spin tales of vast plots by releasing snippets of speculation to selected credulous and sensational media as if they represented evidence (there’s example of the latter today). I am not.

Here are the two sides of the coin. Officialdom ought not to be able to circulate confidential information about individuals for its own convenience, and it should be an obligation of police, not a voluntary virtue, to protect privacy. And if Britain is ever to be a free country again (and I am fully aware that it is quasi-free, not China or Russia, let alone Cuba or Saudi) then possessing and communicating general information by private individuals should not be a crime, nor – which is worse – treated as a crime.

24 comments to Freedom of speech? How about freedom to read?

  • It can happen even if you are an academic whose research is being paid for by the government of the country.

    Even? Not especially? Purse strings and all that?

  • guy herbert


    That you get a government grant for it surely implies at least some pre-endorsement by a politically-approved body of what you are doing.

    In the UK educational system, the state totally dominates the funding of research and teaching in universities outside a few technical specialities where there are industrial and commercial applications.

  • guy herbert

    There is of course not direct political vetting of every project as in the old Soviet Union, but one would expect a funding council to avoid giving money for ‘illegal research’.

  • Same here, AFAIK. Sigh.

  • Sunfish

    What makes a document an ‘illegal’ document? Who decides and according to what criteria?

    I could almost see an issue with a classified document, but not one published on the internet by a government allied to the one doing the prosecuting.

    May the heartburn, indigestion, and intestinal distress of a thousand cayenne bushes afflict the sleep of whoever decided to make an issue out of this.

  • Ian B

    I can’t help but wonder what’s in this training manual anyway. Are Al Quaida’s strategies and methods really so revolutionary? What do Al Quaida know that is too dangerous for others to know?

  • bob duckman

    nothing is free.. second law of thermodynamics.

  • bob duckman

    ‘Mein Kampf’ is banned in various countries such as France, Austria, Mexico, Netherlands.

    And ontop of that the Austrian government stole the copywrite on the book from hilters relatives, saying that they souldn’t be allowed to profit from it (even tho they see no problem with they themselves doing so) which I think Sweden is the only country who refuses to enforce the claim.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Whether one is an academic doing a relevant study or not is irrelevant, as there is no bar to academics being terrorists.

    That it’s openly published by a foreign government is irrelevant, as other governments are subject to other laws and not bound by our own. Hamas counts as a sort of foreign government, Iran certainly do – do we want them instructing Jihadis on how and when to commit murder in our countries freely?

    Simple possession of any document should not be illegal unless that possession is an essential component of a separate crime – if it is being used to commit a crime, or a crime was involved in making or obtaining it. Stolen documents, child pornography, forged banknotes, instructions to commit crimes, etc. are potentially illegal to possess, because their possession is itself a part of a criminal enterprise. It is only that larger criminal enterprise for which one is being prosecuted.

    (The general principle is that sometimes it is hard to get proof of the actual crime, especially if the damaging bit hasn’t been committed yet, and that illegitimising the means helps to prevent it more than it inconveniences legitimate users. You only actually commit fraud when you pass forged banknotes, but that’s hard to catch, so they make printing them illegal too. You only commit murder when you pull the trigger, so if a person openly walked in with a bomb the cops wouldn’t be able to arrest him because he hasn’t actually hurt anyone yet. They’d have to follow him around until the moment he went for the trigger and then try to dive in.)

    In this case, the document consisted of criminal instructions, which the American intelligence people presumably stole. However, assuming that the British government accept the waiver that the American government wrote for themselves to excuse intelligence thievery, I doubt that Al Qaida would be able to prosecute over theft of copyright and trade secrets. 🙂

    The question then is whether it is currently being used as part of a terrorist enterprise, (i.e. if anyone is intending to act on the instructions/guidance). If it is, then its possession is itself potentially illegal too, but the possession is not itself evidence of that.

    What seems to have happened is that the police regarded it as reasonable grounds for suspicion, which justifies an investigation (including arrest and a search) to determine if a crime has been or is being committed. That investigation found that there wasn’t, that he wasn’t involved with terrorism, and therefore the document’s possession is not a crime and the suspect is free to go.

    What appears to have gone wrong is that the police didn’t explain this, incorrectly claimed in advance of the conclusion that the document was illegal and possession a crime, and didn’t explain that if the person was not involved in terrorism they would swiftly find that out and let them go, so they shouldn’t worry. I’m not sure if the police are actually required to explain, but it would seem to be rather insensitive policing.

    Whether the police didn’t explain because they were ignorant themselves, or applying a bit of psychological pressure to get the suspect to talk more, or whether they did and the student is exaggerating things a bit for political effect (this is the Guardian we’re talking about here,) I don’t know. I do think all the claims of “torture” are a bit over the top, though. The police often arrest people on suspicion of crimes it turns out they didn’t commit, and I’m sure a lot of those people are scared about getting wrongly imprisoned. I expect every Saturday night drunk chucked into the cells overnight for the first time feels the same.

    What annoys me about this sort of thing is not so much that the police are a bit paranoid about Algerian students with Al Qaida terrorist tactics manuals, but that the standards are inconsistent and unclear. One moment they’re leaping into SWAT-team action over something trivially minor, the next they’re blithely ignoring something horrendously scary.

    I think the truth is that they don’t know what to do, and they’re shit-scared of another one getting through. That guy in Exeter with the nail bomb, it turned out the police already knew about him. I have heard people since ask why, if they knew he was an Islamist nutter, they didn’t do something about him. But it seems they thought he was just hanging around the fringes of the group and wasn’t serious about it. All they had was talk.

    Scared coppers are more likely to do stupid things. As a copper, which would you rather do? Put up with a bit of bad publicity, or deal with all the families after a restaurant full of children has been shredded by someone you knew about and decided to ignore? Being human they sometimes get the balance wrong, but it’s sort of understandable. We need to propose an alternative for them, not simply moan.

  • Sunfish

    What seems to have happened is that the police regarded it as reasonable grounds for suspicion, which justifies an investigation (including arrest and a search) to determine if a crime has been or is being committed. That investigation found that there wasn’t, that he wasn’t involved with terrorism, and therefore the document’s possession is not a crime and the suspect is free to go.

    There’s that pesky difference between the legal system I know and the one I see only through the blogosphere. In my world, by the time an arrest is made it’s usually pretty clear that a crime was committed and the arrestee did it. Any investigation beyond that is basically just gathering additional proof for trial, and even then anticipating defenses rather than trying to prove guilt. Statements taken in custody are far less likely to be admissible at trial, for instance.

    For what it’s worth: we had a case in my area a few years ago. A local drug task force was trying to get into a bookstore’s records to see who bought a book with a methamphetamine recipe in it. Eventually, the appellate courts ruled that they simply could not have those records, as the mere purchase of such a book wasn’t evidence of anything in the absence of other evidence. Circumstantial evidence is perfectly good evidence, when there’s enough of it, but merely buying a book won’t cut it. IIRC, the door was left open to get into bookstore/library records provided that the requesting officer demonstrated their relevance. I don’t know how this interacts with the library record provisions of USA PATRIOT, other than I don’t think it does: the North Metro Drug Task Force was a bunch of city cops, and USA PATRIOT only really expanded the powers of the Federals.

    As a copper, which would you rather do? Put up with a bit of bad publicity, or deal with all the families after a restaurant full of children has been shredded by someone you knew about and decided to ignore?

    Too many people in the general public need to take a position and stick to it. I’ve heard the same person, less than three months apart, make the following two statements:

    On Menezes, “The dumbass should have known not to run from the cops.”

    On Amadou Diallo[1], “The cops were just looking for someone to kill that night. (well, he used different language but there was stuff too crude for me to repeat even in a locker room, never mind a pleasant Memorial Day Sunday morning)

    The terrorism-related thing that keeps me up at night isn’t anything complex like al-Qaeda does. They’ve mounted two successful attacks on the continental US in my lifetime. What scares me is something like the school takeover in Beslan, Russia, a few years back. Like a school shooting planned by someone both evil and competent.

    I already know how bad that’ll be. We’ve trained for such a beast, but there’s no zero-defect way to handle it. Not even if you make the assumption that every single cop is properly armed (which isn’t the case in several major cities and would make the CATO Institue shit bricks if it were true) and expendable in the process, there’s no way to prevent hostage loss. None.

    But that’s okay. Being a cop means that if you walk on water, someone will complain about you not knowing how to swim.

    [1] A victim of misidentification. The NYPD Street Crimes Squad was looking for a violent rapist. They saw a man matching the suspect’s description. They closed, drew guns on him, and ordered him to stop and to not move. Diallo didn’t speak a whole lot of English and came from a country where, when confronted by a cop, the “correct” move is to present ID and bribe RIGHT NOW lest you get beaten for being “disrespectful.”[2] And so, he reached under his jacket to his wallet, with tragic results.

    [2] When confronting a member of the public, under anything but the friendliest of conditions, we HATE having their hands where we can’t see them. Sometimes it’s an honest mistake and other times it’s the first step in going for a weapon, and there’s just no good way to know until it happens.

  • Dale Amon

    I simply do not support any attempt of any government to make the reading or holding of information illegal. That is one of the things the internet is about and has always been about: defeating the Police State.

    If you want to find lots of interesting things that the Statists do not want you to know or read, try out wikileaks.org. Of course, given the low stats of civil liberties in the UK these days, you may well want to use Personal Technical Means available from open source (encrypted disks, onion routers, encrypted data links) to do so.

    I do have some sympathy for the job the police have to do, but in a society of free individuals it is immeasurably more important to defend the liberty of the individual than it is to actually catch every criminal.

    Besides which, even in a totalitarian police state the criminals get away with it anyway.

    The UK may not have a had a First Amendment before, but as some wit once said, the Internet is America’s way of exporting it.

    I said it long ago and in other forums: I would rather die a free man in nuclear fireball than a slave in a police state.

    Lets give see to it that those anti-liberty statists in Nottingham get pure hell from the public.

  • guy herbert

    Sunfish will be interested to know that arrests and searches under the Terrorism Act 2000 and related legislation do not always require reasonable suspicion. The suspicion can often be entirely unreasonable as long as it is there.

    Note 2000, not 2001.

  • guy herbert


    I trust you know that de Menezes did not “run from the cops”, and put your interlocutor straight on the matter. The things that everybody thinks they know about that case were almost all untruths put around unofficially, some of them almost certainly by people connected with the Met. All the evidence from the subsequent enquiry indicates that he probably didn’t even know he was being followed until they held him down and pumped half a dozen dum-dum rounds into his head.

  • Sunfish

    From context, I suspected as much about the lack of evidence required to support an arrest. And I also suspect that, if we continue this part of the conversation, we will be violently agreeing with each other about the rightness or wrongness of this, shortly.

    Anyway, is there ANY basis for challenging an arrest as not being supported by sufficient evidence?

    As for Sr. de Menezes…what I do know is that the Met has failed to be even the least forthcoming with any useful details, and that different witnesses drawn from the general public saw different things. Which is actually normal and reasonable: two different people watching the exact same five second event will each focus on two separate things. However, the agency investigating the whole mess has been so closed-mouthed about details that the public and the professional community need to know, that you, as a UK citizen, have no reason to trust them. And I, as a US citizen with a professional concern, am denied the accurate account of events needed in order to derive useful lessons for the next suspected terror plot. the only person who benefits from this series of self-serving lies and evasions is the liar.

    But I’ve ranted on about this before.

  • Sunfish

    Reading that over, I’m not 100% that was even halfway coherent. Can’t we just blame this on George Bush, SUV’s, Islam, and illegal immigrants from Mexico, and be done with it?

  • Kevin B

    We need a British cop to chime in on this. I was under the impression that the UK police regularly arrest and caution people in order to take statements from them when they suspect a crime has been commited, regardless of whether they suspect that person of having commited the crime or merely of having evidence relating to the crime, (and regardless of whether the crime is terrorist related.)

    In other words, arrest has very different connotations in the UK from those it has in the US.

  • I am no fan of many of the actions and policies of the Russian government, but I very much doubt this would ever happen here. Russia is weird like this, some things you would expect to happen don’t, and some things you would expect to be outlawed are not. On Saturday I went for a bike ride with a Brit and a German which took us over a tank training area used by the Russian army. We took pictures of each other right on the premises, and nobody – even if they’d seen us – would have given a stuff. The German noted that if he’d done that back home, he’d have got 3 months prison.

  • Read that manual online years ago or at least the 28 page excerpt pdf the US DOJ posted on the Internet.
    The entire 5,000 page document can still be found today and a number of smaller versions can also be found on the world wide web.
    If the dem thing is so ‘illegal’ why is it still up there?
    Perhaps because it appears to be part of a US propaganda push after 9/11.
    In fact there is strong evidence that parts of the ‘translated’ document are simply compilations of conspiracy myths found elswhere.
    Nottingham Uni and the British security services are laughing stocks.

  • Julian Taylor

    What the hell is the “Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills”? Their ‘mission statement’ appears to be:

    Our mission is to improve the nation’s skills at every level and make the UK the leading place to be an innovative business or organisation. To achieve this we must ensure customer focus is a thread running through every aspect of our policy development.

    … which demonstrates about as much innovation as a dead cockroach might have.

  • guy herbert

    Kevin B,

    Maybe they do do that, illegally, but in general it is unlawful to arrest someone without reason to suspect them of a criminal offence. There used to be a further criterion that it was a criminal offence of specified seriousness, or the officer was unable to identify the suspect. That recently changed (2006), but as a small trade off, the reasonableness criterion was slightly extended. As in the ‘States, technical tricks are frequently employed to search people in ways that are contended not to be searches (dogs, scanners, ‘information-sharing’). There are also practices designed to elicit behaviour (such as refusing a ‘voluntary’ search) which can then be used as grounds for suspicion – which would not fly in the States.


    The official report, the most complete account we are likely to get, is here:

    8.16 The available CCTV evidence shows Jean Charles DE MENEZES walking calmly into STOCKWELL Underground station just after
    10:00hrs on Friday 22 July 2005. He was wearing a denim jacket, Tshirt and denim jeans. He was not carrying anything.
    8.17 Mr DE MENEZES is seen on the CCTV to select a copy of the Metro newspaper. He then walked to the ticket barrier, used an Oyster card and walked through the turnstile. He then turned left towards the
    escalator to the Northern line and walked down on its left hand side. There are no recordings, which cover the lower end of the escalator or platform, the relevant tapes, when seized by the MPS, were found to be

    Witnesses of course give varying accounts. A friend of mine was in the next carriage. He saw and heard nothing. Not even the shots. The underground is a very noisy, full place, particularly at rush hour.

    If you read the report it is clear that the officers involved were, excusably perhaps, engaged in an act of collective narration and performance of the story they expected – their interpretation of de Menezes actions and demeanour being conditioned by their belief that he was a suicide-bomber, and their preconceptions of how a suicide-bomber would behave.

    That’s a common factor in a lot of institutional activities. I suspect there may be in such a case a particular problem of cognitive dissonance with firearms officers. In the UK the majority of police and the whole of the ordinary public is never armed; so firearms specialists form a small separate group generally deployed on the street only when there is officially notified severe danger from armed criminals.

  • guy herbert

    Julian Taylor,

    What the hell is the “Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills”?

    Bits of the former Department for Education and Science, with some miscellaneous training-promotion functions grabbed from the former Department of Trade and Industry and the former Department of Social Security.

    The rest of the DfES has gone into the Department of Children Schools and Families, which aims to manage the development of the potential unit of national production from conception to deployment as a student or worker; only then is the citizen (properly defined by his responsibilities), handed over to DIUS to be specifically skilled for the market, and contribute directly to making Britain more competitive, more world-class.

    If anything, the administrative revolution in the last decade has been larger than the legal and consitutional one. We are well on the way to having the institutions and organs of a true fascist .. corporatist … national-security civic republican state.

  • Paul Marks

    The term “illegal document” is unlikely to have been used by the police in a legal context – more likely the police said something like “materials useful for terrorism” (or whatever the exact words of the legislation are).

    Indeed even an essay arguing in political support of terrorism can be an offense under one of the various bits of legistlation that has been passed – and this seems to have been more than that (as it concerned TACTICS rather than just “it is jolly good” or whatever). “But it was from a American government website” – quite so, but when gets all sorts of silly results once one has this sort of legislation.

    In the end one believes in free speech (First Amendment style) or one does not.

    And this country decided long ago that it does NOT support free speech (the test issue was incitement of racial hatred) so now that the principle has long fallen it is simply a question is what speech (including written documents) are approved of.

    “But the silence of the law is the liberty of the subject – if something is not clearly forbidden, it is allowed”.

    Of course we have long moved beyond that.

    The logical way of deciding this is on the basis of what speech the government approves of – so this is the basis on which the powers-that-be are proceeding.

    Is what you are saying, writing or reading something we want you to say, write or read? If it is not you can not do it.

    Simple enough really.

  • Back on the 1st April (though I’m sure not a joke), the Times published a comment article DPP Sir Ken Macdonald: Detaining terror suspects for over four weeks is not needed ostensibly refuting the need for a 42-day terrorist detention period.

    I was concerned that this was actually not a refutation of 42 days but a justification for 28 days. My comment, still available on the Times website, included the following:

    This is an interesting article. However, the important figure that you do not publish is that of the number of persons detained beyond 4 days, who are never charged with terrorist offences; this is in addition to the number who are found not guilty.

    It is very important, in considering the merit and dismerit of longer periods of arrest before charge, to distinguish between terrorist and non-terrorist offences. Holding someone for between 5 and 28 days and ending up with a conviction on a non-terrorist offence is, in my view at least, barely better than them being found innocent or not charged.

    It strikes me that Guy’s selection of this event shows both of the dangers that concerned me earlier, most likely (and inappropriately) omitted from Government statistical claims of the success of their anti-terrorism legislation:

    (i) arrest and detention under the terrorism act, followed by no charge;

    (ii) arrest and detention under the terrorism act followed by charge (or in this case other action) for, presumably, the lesser crime of infringing immigration law.

    I know nothing of these events more than in the BBC article and Guy’s comment. However, if the BBC is accurate, it seems that there is a problem copying an article available on a USA Government website. It also seems that Nottingham University has two hands, where neither knows what the other does: surely a lack of intelligence in more ways than one.

    I am no lover of terrorism, or of its fellow-travellers. However, unless there is much more going on here that has been explained (and why should that be, given a report by the BBC), I reckon to have a justified feeling of sadness over such things happening in the UK.

    Best regards

  • Part of my final paragraph above should read, I hope obviously:

    … However, unless there is much more going on here THAN has been explained…