Jerry Springer: the Opera cleared of blasphemous libel in High Court

An attempt to bring a private prosecution for the ancient offence of blasphemous libel has been thrown out by the High Court. Jerry Springer: the Opera is protected by free speech provisions in theatre and broadcasting laws, the court said.

Stephen Green, a member of Christian Voice, wanted a Magistrates Court to issue summonses against the producer of the stage play and Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC. The District Judge refused to issue the summonses and Green sought judicial review of that decision.

Jerry Springer: the Opera is a parody of the Jerry Springer chat show. Lord Justice Hughes noted that the TV show's "stock in trade" is the presentation as entertainment of dysfunctional people who have lurid stories to tell.

The play is in two acts. The first act lampoons the chat show and at the end, Springer's character is shot by a guest. The second act follow's Springer's descent into hell. Satan, Christ, God, Mary and Adam and Eve appear as foul-mouthed chat show guests.

According to the court, the offence of blasphemous libel requires "contemptuous, scurrilous and/or ludicrous material relating to God, Christ, the bible or the formularies of the Church of England." Second, "the publication must be such as tends to endanger society as a whole, by endangering the peace, depraving public morality, shaking the fabric of society or tending to cause civil strife."

The second element "will not be shown merely because some people of particular sensibility are, because deeply offended, moved to protest," the court said. "It will be established if but only if what is done or said is such as to induce a reasonable reaction involving civil strife, damage to the fabric of society or their equivalent."

The court noted that the play had been performed regularly in major theatres in London for a period of nearly two years "without any sign of it undermining society or occasioning civil strife or unrest; there had been no violence (or even demonstrations)."

The case failed for another reason. The Theatres Act of 1968 prevents prosecution for the offence of blasphemous libel in respect of a live theatrical performance of the work. Broadcasts are protected in the same way under the Broadcasting Act of 1990. The District Judge refused the summonses under these Acts' provisions. The High Court said she was right to do so.

The court also looked at Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights which protects freedom of expression. It said this provision is consistent with the ancient offence, because Article 10 allows interference with free speech where it is necessary in a democratic society for the prevention of disorder or crime or the protection of the rights of others.

The ruling is the first case to be decided on the offence of blasphemous libel since the 1970s when campaigner Mary Whitehouse secured a conviction against the publishers of James Kirkup's poem, The Love that Dares to Speak its Name.