Free to express yourself at the airport; apparently not?

I think that we can all agree that we are living in turbulent times.

Opinions are freely expressed, some of which are clearly objectionable

The social networks contain outrage at the open racism, so-called satirical references to rape of female politicians and overt threats, whilst it appears our police are trapped in the headlights of inaction.

The brexit-debate has been the focus of much ‘freedom of expression’, culminating in chants, songs and stickers that leave the general public in no doubt as to the allegiance of the individual promoting that message. The recent pro & anti-EU marches saw a plethora of such expression ranging from speeches that incited division and nazi salutes to clear expressions about Mr Farage and the famous ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ sticker.

‘Bollocks to Brexit’ reached a level of notoriety when the owner of the ‘Pimlico Plumbers’ proudly bannered this message across the roof of his main office in London. As you walk through the main streets of any city, you can see such stickers attached to lamp-posts and bags, without a blink of the eye from passers-by. At one march I attended, I was asked by stewards to hand out these stickers to those around me, which I did. All but one accepted, in fact demanded, the ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ sticker. I offered one man this sticker and he politely refused, stating that he did not approve of the words used. Others around were about to take him to task when I told him that in my view, this was OK, he was entitled to his view and that all shades of opinion should be respected.

It is that ‘all shades of opinion’ that should be respected, that has been recently called into question at UK airports.

The first case involved a man passing through London’s Gatwick Airport wearing his anti-brexit sticker. This man was apparently asked to remove his sticker and when he did not do so, he was detained; apparently the border-force official objected to the sticker and detention appeared to be justified because this air passenger stood up for his right to quietly protest and refused to remove his sticker.

Another case was revealed on twitter. A regular anti-brexit campaigner was passing through a UK airport when security objected to their hand-baggage which was covered in ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ stickers. The security officer(s) objected to the stickers and gave them a choice; either they removed the stickers or they wouldn’t be allowed to pass through. From my perspective, given that this campaigner supports our current European membership, including the European Convention on Human Rights, I was disappointed to note that they complied and removed all their stickers so that they could catch their flight - this was in stark contrast to the previous case!

And here we are at the heart of the issue; how free are we really to express our views, particularly if we do so quietly and without drawing attention to ourselves?

What is clear in both cases, both had either been on a flight and/or passing through the airport. In both cases it is apparent that no individual complaints had been made by other members of the public; no-one expressed an outrage at the stickers and their message; no-one objected.

Equally, when we examine who the complainants were, we can see that they were officials engaged in public duties. Whether they were security or border-force, both are subject to the processes of their respective jobs, providing an objective service on behalf of the State. I could understand if a passenger travelled through the airport with a highly provocative T-shirt with socially unacceptable words or images, then it would be appropriate to intervene to protect against public outrage or morals.

Bollocks! The word bollocks has a long history dating back to the 13th Century and is referred to in John Wycliffes Bible at Leviticus xxii - 24! Its long history also reveals that the word was often used to describe something that was ‘nonsense’; it signifies a contempt for a particular proposition. The word has both positive and negative connotations; it is part of our dialogue, gloriously used with great gusto in British society (note the famous case involving the sex pistols and how the word ‘Bollocks’ was not deemed to be obscene).

What concerns me most is that whilst our society burns away with free and often inappropriate speech or representation, airport personnel appear to have acted as thought-police, perhaps allowing their own personal prejudices to interfere with their stated role?

Holidaymakers faced with such a scenario would do well to bear in mind the European Convention on Human Rights and in particular, Article 10, which states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This rights shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers…..The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation of the rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary”

Can anyone see how these two air passengers breached Article 10, so much so as to justifiably interfere with their right to freedom of expression? Public safety, disorder & morals could potentially be the arguments put forward by the airport-security or border-force. However, that argument would flounder given that the word ‘Bollocks’ is such a widely and generally used word, that surely a court could only conclude that the agents of the State negatively interfered with their right to freedom of expression?

The actions against these two air passengers, could be argued to be a result of the immediate prejudices of those demanding the removal of these stickers.To argue that they would be outraged by the word ‘Bollocks’, in their capacity as agents of the State, or acting on an imaginary public outrage would suggest a disproportionate response against a flood of passengers passing through an airport, with all forms of descriptive attire?

What happened to these two air passengers is not only dangerous but represents the thin end of the wedge, that unilaterally and subjectively seeks to dictate and reinvent a social norm; it is a breach of a Human Right.

I would always suggest that holidaymakers and air passengers conduct themselves appropriately and within the law. But, where something as innocuous as these two cases is presented by a holidaymaker or air passenger, they should quietly and politely remind those in authority of their Article 10 rights and listen carefully to any justification offered to interfere with that right. The response is everything and could help you secure recognition of your right to wear a ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ sticker without let or hindrance.

To the authorities I say this; there are far more serious breaches of Article 10 rights which you have spectacularly failed to deal with. Concentrate on those serious breaches, brief your agents and employees to be less subjective at airports and above all recognise that the actions against these two air passengers were simply ‘Bollocks’!