Met police try to censor Leda and the swan

The Evening Standard and the Telegraph are reporting that police officers threatened an art gallery in London with prosecution for displaying an artistic depiction of the Greek myth of Leda and the swan. Authoritarians often scoff when we warn that attempts to restrict pornography will impact on other art forms. They don’t recognise that once a law is on the books, the actual acts or material targeted by police are going to be very different, and sometimes much more widespread, than envisaged by legislators.

In this particular case, the police appear to have been grasping at straws rather than any real legal claim, and no offence was recorded eventually. Police are reported to have said that ‘condoning bestiality’ is an arrestable offence. There is no such offence. They may have been thinking of the ban on possession of extreme images, which includes depictions of bestiality. But while the artwork depicts bestiality, it does not do so realistically, nor with the purpose of causing sexual arousal, and not terribly explicitly, all of which are required elements for an image to be classified as extreme.

The problem is that neither a good sense of aesthetics nor a particularly good knowledge of English law are requirements for becoming a police officer. It does make you wonder how much police time is wasted trying to charge people with offences that do not exist. There are high costs associated with law enforcement and it would be good to know that the police were focussed on the offences that really exist and really matter. But then it isn’t as if the Met police have any other pressing concerns, like a knife crime wave, or weeding out violent racists within their own ranks, so I guess it doesn’t matter!

There are police adverts that currently warn the public to secure their valuables against shoplifters with the slogan: “Give them an inch, and they will take all they can”. Such a warning could equally apply to the police themselves. Any restriction on free speech seems to be taken by police as a signal that they have carte blanche to harass anyone’s expression to which they take a dislike. Restrictions on expression, in so far as they are necessary at all, need to be well drafted and carefully legislated. Then the police need to know that most people would prefer they caught a few more robbers instead of intimidating art gallery staff.

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