Page last updated at 14:41 GMT, Monday, 29 June 2009 15:41 UK

Obscene stories or free speech?

By Victoria King and Jon Kelly
BBC News

Girls Aloud
The story detailed the torture and murder of each member of Girls Aloud

Civil servant Darryn Walker has been cleared of breaching the Obscene Publications Act with a story he wrote about Girls Aloud.

The story, posted on an internet site, described in graphic detail the kidnap, torture, murder and mutilation of the five band members - Cheryl Cole, Sarah Harding, Nadine Coyle, Kimberley Walsh and Nicola Roberts.

Mr Walker's prosecution would have been a landmark case.

Obscenity laws are rarely used, especially for content on the internet, and where they are invoked, it is almost always images, not words, that are the subject.

The standard in such cases is whether the material is likely "to deprave or corrupt those reading or viewing it", but historically this has proved very hard to meet.

Rupert Bear

The Obscene Publications Act was most famously used in 1960 against Penguin Books after it published the controversial novel Lady Chatterley's Lover.

The sexually explicit book by DH Lawrence describes the affair between an aristocratic woman and her gardener Mellors.

It had been banned since its publication in 1928, but when Penguin was found not guilty of obscenity that ban was lifted.

We have laws against incitement to racial and religious hatred, but none for incitement to sexual hatred
Julie Bindel, feminist campaigner

The Act was used again in 1971 to bring a case against the editors of satirical magazine Oz, after a children's issue was published featuring a cartoon of Rupert Bear having sex.

Richard Neville, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson were convicted and sentenced to 15 months' imprisonment, but the convictions were later overturned on appeal.

In 1976, another obscenity prosecution failed - this time involving the publishers of Inside Linda Lovelace - a book about the life of a porn star.

Afterwards, the Metropolitan Police reportedly gave up hopes of future prosecutions under the Act, believing that if Inside Linda Lovelace was not obscene, then nothing was.

Most recently, the law was used to ban David Britton's graphic and violent book Lord Horror. A magistrate ordered the entire remaining print run be destroyed, but the ban was eventually overturned by the Court of Appeal in 1992.

'Sexual hatred'

With so many failed cases to its name, feminist campaigner Julie Bindel believes it is time to get rid of the Act altogether.

"What we've got in this country is a double standard," she told the BBC News website.

"We have laws against incitement to racial and religious hatred, but none for incitement to sexual hatred.

"And that's exactly what pornography and these sorts of stories do - peddle an image of women as gagging for it, enjoying pain, and that encourages men to treat them that way.

"We need new legislation to protect women, then we could do away with these old-fashioned obscenity laws."

Lady Chatterley's Lover
The publisher of Lady Chatterley's Lover was prosecuted for obscenity

Mr Walker, 35, from South Shields, South Tyneside, prefaced his 12-page story - called Girls (Scream) Aloud - with a disclaimer.

He said his words were "imaginary descriptions" of "a world in which women are disposable sex objects that exist solely for the pleasure of men".

He also insisted his work was "strictly fictitious" and should not be "re-enacted in any way".

But despite this Mr Walker was arrested in February 2008, after his story was spotted by online protection charity the Internet Watch Foundation.

It tipped off the police, but because the website in question was hosted overseas the foundation had no power to act.

A spokeswoman explained that while there is international agreement on what is illegal when it comes to images of child sex abuse, there is no such consensus on what constitutes criminally obscene material in general.

'Dangerous precedent'

There is no doubt that the words used by Mr Walker are deeply offensive, but does he have the right to use them?

Free speech is a tenet of British democracy and is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Rape and murder predate the printing press by a long way
Avedon Carol
Feminists Against Censorship

And while some feminists like Ms Bindel want those freedoms curtailed, others support the right of people like Mr Walker to publish such material.

A spokeswoman for campaign group Feminists Against Censorship, Avedon Carol, said this attempted prosecution represented a dangerous precedent.

She also said it would be counter-productive if its intention was to tackle violent attitudes towards women.

"Rape and murder predate the printing press by a long way," she said.

"If we want to address misogyny, we need to speak about it openly and honestly. Censorship isn't going to make it disappear."

But while free speech might be the starting point, the ECHR does allow for the restriction of those freedoms to safeguard "public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, protection of the reputation or rights of others".

Defence counsel Tim Owen told Newcastle Crown Court that writing of the sort that Mr Walker produced was "widely available in an unregulated and uncensored form".

"In terms of its alleged obscenity, it is frankly no better or worse than other articles."

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